“Our act of making art is our act of action,” Mack-Watkins said. “It’s a resistance.”
#TheBrowniesBook; #ChildrenOfTheSun; #ChildrenLiterature; #AfricanAmericans
New York/Canadian-Media: A short-lived but influential publication “The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun” edited by W.E.B., a pioneer in children’s literature, celebrated African-Americans with positive images, stories, and poetry at a time when caricature toys were the norm.
One among the many artists inspired by this magazine which ran from January 1920 to December 1921, Jennifer Mack-Watkins’ upcoming solo exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont draws from the publication’s illustrative imagery.
One image in particular of a photograph of thousands of Black people marching down Fifth Avenue in New York resembling a celebratory parade provided the catalyst for her show.
“This is beautiful, they’re all dressed in white — it must be a glorious, great occasion,” she recalled thinking. “Then after reading more, I realized, wow, it’s not what I thought it was.”
The image provided a wild contrast to the reality of the actual protest taking place in the names of those who had recently been killed in a race riot in St. Louis and other acts of violence toward Black people across America.
When Mack-Watkins, raised in the South and based in New York, was asked to take her art to Vermont, her search for a particular moment in history to raise awareness among the people led her to the magazine and to a Vermont poet named Daisy Turner, who as a schoolgirl in 1891 took a defiant stand against racism.
Going against the instructions to recite a poem written by a white person while holding a caricatured Black doll, she improvised with her own poem.
Inspired by both Turner and the magazine, Mack-Watkins created 11 silkscreens and two-color lithographs and named it “Children of the Sun,” which will be on display from March 17 through June 13, both virtually and in person.
Using doll imagery as a narrative framework in the show to explore the exhibition’s themes as well as audio recordings by Turner, including her recitation of the 1891 poem, is intertwined with a modern-day response and poetry by Fayemi Shakur, a writer, and interdisciplinary artist written specifically for the show.
“The dolls I chose to depict in the work are not a representation of who we are as a people,” she said, “but I’m more interested in just the act of play.”
Dolls are personal to Mack-Watkins as growing up, she played with many kinds of dolls.
In her show, Mack-Watkins framed the silkscreen dolls in an arch, a symbolic gesture to show the “vulnerability and perseverance of Black children in America,” she said. The dolls only have first names, like Harriet and Langston, and are named after Black leaders and pioneers and left it to viewers’ discretion to discover the importance of these names.
“And if they don’t know the full names of the people, hopefully, that’ll steer them to actually look and see why I named them that,” she said.
She also said she wants her show to reach children “so they can know that Black is beautiful.”
Her own 4-year-old daughter gravitated toward the images and hand-painted them, while her husband made copies.
“My daughter knew that they were important so she took the time to hand paint with watercolor, every drawing that I had made. And it was special to her,” she said. “So it definitely goes to the children, my own children, other people’s children, and adults that continue to look for representation.”
Being first introduced to a printmaking technique in high school, Mack-Watkins then studied the field at Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College, and tells stories of the Black experience and hopes to inspire other printmakers of color to do the same.