Miami University Art Museum has a groundbreaking show of illustrations used on books for African-American children

"Telling a People's Story" is the first museum exhibit devoted to this specific subject

May 29, 2018 at 1:02 pm
click to enlarge An illustration by Ekua Holmes - PHOTO: Sherri Krazl
PHOTO: Sherri Krazl
An illustration by Ekua Holmes

Storytime for illustrators of African-American children’s books has finally arrived.

Led by exhibitions curator Jason Shaiman, Miami University Art Museum has assembled the first major museum exhibition devoted to the art found in literature for young black readers. Spanning nearly 50 years of publishing, Telling a People’s Story recognizes 35 illustrators (all but two of them black) who have depicted a complex cultural history in a way that not only appeals to children but heightens adults’ awareness as well.

A total of 130 original artworks — sweet and tender as well as bold, lively, stoic, spiritual and, at times, scary — are on display along with the nearly 100 books in which they appear. Almost every picture speaks a thousand words about African folklore, slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, a collective identity and individual contributions to music, sports, medicine and more.

Nevertheless, “kiddie lit” is marginalized, and books for black kids have received even less attention. The Newbery Medal for authors and the Caldecott Medal for artists have honored contributions to children’s literature since 1922 and 1938, respectively, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a winner was black.

Separate works by author-illustrators John and Javaka Steptoe, father and son, serve as symbolic bookends for the exhibit, which incorporates the publishing world’s slights into the show’s broader narratives of African-American history and social justice. John’s 1969 book Stevie, his earliest work, is about a little boy’s mixed reaction to having a foster brother. The characters could have been black or white, but the fact that they are black and portrayed positively made Stevie the first children’s book for African-Americans to receive critical acclaim. It didn’t win one of the major awards, but it helped lead to the establishment of the Coretta Scott King Book Award for black children’s lit a year later. Forward to 2017, and Javaka’s book Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat won both the King award and the Caldecott, a first.

In between those literary milestones, Telling a People’s Story illustrates more than 400 years of history, all the way back to Africa. Floyd Cooper depicts a Zimbabwean elder entertaining a group a children with ancestral tales. It’s a scene that Shaiman has enjoyed seeing repeated in the galleries, where books have been placed at a tyke’s eye level and next to comfy chairs.

Words gain more meaning when spoken, and art comes alive when it’s not on the printed page. The exhibition is an opportunity to fully appreciate the textile work of Ohio artist Aminah Robinson. Rod Brown’s oil paint sparkles like the summer sun that’s beating down on a cotton field in the book From Slave Ship to Freedom Road. For his story about Basquiat, Javaka created three-dimensional works out of objects found in the late street artist’s New York neighborhood.

Shaiman, who is white, has asked himself why a historically black institution didn’t do this kind of exhibition first. But a colleague noted that hosting it at a place like Howard University would be preaching to the choir. So Shaiman prefers to believe that things happen for a reason and that Miami University was always meant to host these works. For proof, he points to Ekua Holmes’ collage illustrations of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist who came to Oxford in 1964 for Freedom Summer and rallied volunteers just steps away from where the art museum now stands.

“This is not alone an African-American story. This is part of the American story,” Shaiman says.

The need to protect the dozens of artworks on paper thwarts plans for a museum tour of the original exhibit. But the solution to reproduce the show on vinyl panels and send them to schools and libraries has Shaiman excited.

“Getting this into the schools and libraries is more important than getting it into the museums,” he says. “Imagine: With a museum, you get thousands and thousands of people coming in. With a traveling panel show, you can reach hundreds of thousands of kids. You can reach millions of kids. That’s going to have a bigger impact.”

Telling a People’s Story is up through June 30 at Miami University Art Museum (801 S. Patterson Ave., Oxford). More info: miamioh.edu/artmuseum