John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

Robert Colescott

Lightening Lipstick, 1994

Robert Colescott isn’t afraid to face prejudice head-on. As an African American, he feels that self-censoring his work in order to be politically correct would be a cop-out. It is better, in his estimation, to expose bigotry in all of its ugliness and ludicrous proportions than to politely sidestep difficult topics. Many of Colescott’s works from the 1970s feature a recasting of art historical masterpieces—such as Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters—in blackface. His use of offensive pop icons—like Aunt Jemima—and minstrelsy have not always been appreciated within the black community; some have felt that the artist was only helping to perpetuate this type of negative stereotype.

In this work, Colescott addresses a sensitive racial issue within both the black and white communities: a preference for lighter-skinned African Americans over dark (and, consequently, the privilege that entails). Lightening Lipstick examines how the perception of skin color in the United States and the Caribbean informs identity and how our categorization of others may not match their idea of themselves. A light-skinned woman looking at her darker reflection exclaims in Spanish, “Soy latina!” (“I’m a Latina”), while the face in the mirror responds, “Negrita” (“Black Woman”). The woman is denying her African heritage and suggesting the racial transmutation that has occurred in America since the Spanish conquest. A barometer of this “lightening” is charted from one to six, beginning with a very dark-skinned man shown over an enslaved woman and ending with a Howdy Doody-like caricature. By using humor and satire, Colescott creates a complex narrative that addresses the serious social ramifications of imperialism, slavery, and rape on future generations.

Inspired by Sargent Johnson—an African American sculptor who had worked with his father on the railroad—Colescott decided to pursue a career as an artist. Thankfully, he found more options available to him than did his predecessor. After studying painting and drawing at the University of California, Berkeley, Colescott traveled to Paris to study with Fernand Léger, drawn by the city’s racial tolerance and thriving community of African American artists. Following a sojourn in Cairo, Egypt, he returned to the West Coast, where he became a leading figural painter. Colescott received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985; represented the United States at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997 (the first African American to do so); and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1999. He taught for forty-three years as professor of art at the University of Arizona, until his retirement in 1997. In 2005 he served as the Class of 1943 Wells Professor at Indiana University.

Colescott’s use of irony, pop culture references, “appropriation” of art historical prototypes, and painterly, cartoon-like style set the stage for the postmodern art that followed. His confrontational approach and honesty connected with a hip-hop generation weaned on MTV and desensitized to media exploitation. Younger African American artists, such as Michael Ray Charles, Kara Walker, and Adrian Piper, are indebted to him. By taking a stance on complex issues—such as racial blending—Colescott challenged these artists to go beyond outrage over stereotypes and examine contemporary issues of identity.

Romare Bearden, The Family

Robert Colescott
American, 1925-2009
Lightening Lipstick, 1994
Acrylic on canvas
h. 90 x w. 114" (228.6 x 289.6 cm)
Museum purchase with funds from Lawrence and Lucienne Glaubinger, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer CARE Foundation, the Elisabeth P. Myers Art Acquisition Fund, and the Joseph Granville and Anna Bernice Wells Memorial Fund, IU Art Museum 2005.2

Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope