The Recorder – Standing and proud: an exhibition at the Eric Carle museum pays tribute to African Americans

It all started with a poem, an ode to African Americans and their courage and determination to build a meaningful life in a nation that has put the odds in their favor.

Then it became an award-winning children’s book, “The Undefeated,” which combined Kwame Alexander’s words with Kadir Nelson’s paintings to tell this story of black resilience in a graphic format.

It is now an exhibition, a comprehensive presentation of Nelson’s original paintings that help celebrate the work of African American activists, artists, athletes and ordinary people who have made profound contributions to culture and to American history – ideally giving hope to the next generation of young black people.

“The Undefeated,” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, features 16 large oil paintings from the 2019 book of the same name, which won three of the most distinguished children’s literature awards: a Caldecott Medal , the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award (for Nelson’s paintings) and a Newbery Honor (for Alexander’s text).

“The Undefeated” is the second comprehensive exhibition of Nelson’s work that Carle has mounted; the museum previously exhibited his paintings of famous black league baseball players. Nelson’s work has also been part of a number of group exhibitions at the museum in recent years.

Nelson’s current show runs through April 3.

Nelson is an acclaimed artist and author of children’s books in California whose work is featured in several museum collections and on U.S. commemorative stamps, and his work has also appeared on 16 covers of New Yorker magazine. He paints in a rich, atmospheric style reminiscent of the work of old European masters as well as iconic American artists such as Edward Hopper.

His portraits in “The Undefeated” also stand out because he almost all created them against plain white backgrounds. In these paintings we can see some of the most iconic African American figures in history: Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald.

But ordinary people are also a part of this tale, including a black family of five dressed in early 20th-century clothing, to whom Alexander’s poem pays homage as “Those Who Lived / America / by all means necessary. “

Courtney Waring, director of education at the Carle Museum, says she is particularly impressed with the way Nelson coupled her images with Alexander’s words to unveil a narrative that draws connections between past and present, references to trafficking Transatlantic from slaves in the civil rights era to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The way these words and these paintings come together creates such a powerful story,” she said during a recent visit to the exhibition.

The painting on the front page of the book, for example, depicts Jesse Owens, the athletics star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in the midst of his long jump victory at the Games. Alexander’s poem begins with the words “It’s for the unforgettable. / The fast and gentle / who hindered history / and opened up a world / possibilities.

Another painting commemorates the African Americans who fought on the Union side during the Civil War – the soldiers who as Alexander wrote in his poem “wore red, white and Tired blues / on the battlefield / to save an imperfect union.

While she enjoys all of Nelson’s work, Waring, a college art history major, says she is particularly drawn to a panel of mostly 20th-century African-American artists, including the sculptor. Augusta Savage, novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and collagist Romare Bearden. The colorful backdrop, unlike the plain backgrounds of Nelson’s other paintings, is also a tribute to the style of Aaron Douglas, a renowned Harlem Renaissance painter.

“I really like the way [Nelson] added that touch here, ”Waring said.

Next to the paintings that celebrate people, there are those that recognize the victims of racism and segregation. Using a line from Alexander’s poem – “It’s for the unspeakable” – Nelson offers a picture of four young black girls who were killed in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1970s. civil rights. The portraits of the four girls are shown in framed photographs with broken glass.

The only abstract image of Nelson in “The Undefeated” is a powerful one, made up of dozens and dozens of naked black bodies, lined up in tight rows like sardines, in reference to the transatlantic slave trade. By some estimates, well over 15% of those captured in Africa and brought to North and South America died en route due to the hellish conditions on the slave ships.

Ultimately, however, Alexander’s poem and Nelson’s paintings deliver a positive message. A painting, taken from the last two pages of the book, shows the faces of several smiling black children.

In an afterword to the book, Alexander, who is also a writer of children’s books, says he began writing his poem in 2008 in honor of his new daughter, Samayah, and Barack Obama after he was elected president. He wanted to tell the story that brought the country “to this historic moment,” he writes, and “to remind Samayah and his friends and family and all of you to remind me never to give up.”

For his part, Nelson added birds and butterflies to some of the paintings on the last pages of “The Undefeated”. As he said at a book awards ceremony last year, these aerial creatures function both as a “visual device” to further aid the story, but also to celebrate “the spirit. of the African American people, the spirit of excellence, resistance, beauty, pride, love and the universe.

“It’s one of the things I love the most [about the exhibit], the way it gives children hope that things can change, that there can be a better future, ”Waring said.

In addition to Nelson’s paintings, the Carle exhibition features some of the artist’s earliest drawings, including one of Mr. Spock, the character from the “Star Trek” series, at age 9, and another of the basketball legend. -ball Michael Jordan. There is also a reading area in the gallery with books illustrated by Nelson, as well as children’s books about many of the people featured in the paintings in the exhibition.

You can find more information about “The Undefeated” and the Eric Carle Museum at

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]

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