Our racial biases against the wall

Not afraid to provoke, Ashland artist Del explores difficult and sometimes violent racial themes in his art installation at Southern Oregon University's Thorndike Gallery.

Del's installation, which is part of his master's thesis, is titled "Soulciology." It is sculptural assemblage art, meaning two- or three-dimensional compositions made up of found objects. The pieces in "Soulciology" are meant to address deeply ingrained biases toward black men and spark a dialogue about race.

The installation comprises several separate pieces connected by a unifying theme of race. The first piece, "Celebrity Monkey," is Del's response to a 2009 New York Post cartoon that depicts President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.

The piece includes the Post cartoon pasted onto the front of a television set, while on top of the set, viewed initially from the back, is a figure in a chimpanzee suit. As visitors move around the sculpture, they discover who the wearer of the suit is, and what he is holding. "People say now that Obama is president we are in a post-racial America, but we have a long way to go and much to talk about," Del says.

Del's art reflects his experiences as a black man growing up in England and later living in the U.S. He says that assemblage art and sculpture is the ideal fit for him, combining his love of texture, collage and mixed media with his love of thrift-store treasure hunting.

"I'm always visiting thrift shops, and friends know I collect so many things, so finding the objects I need for a piece is rarely difficult," he says.

While components of his pieces consist of found objects, each piece itself is carefully planned and constructed. Del, who is visually impaired, sculpts mostly by touch and collaborates with other craftspeople as needed. For example, the stand that supports the television in the opening piece was constructed by metal workers according to Del's precise instruction.

"I can clearly visualize the pieces and the statement I want them to make long before I assemble them," he says. "The idea had been in my mind for some time, and I knew exactly how I wanted the exhibit to be."

Following the Obama installation are several other pieces, including "Knockout," which addresses the disproportionate number of black men in U.S. prisons.

Another piece, titled "American Skinhead," features a mannequin, fixed to an American flag backdrop, dressed as a skinhead holding a baton and poised to strike the head of a black man. Del says he wants the piece to make people slightly uncomfortable.

"I have a lot of mirrors in my work. The piece is about self-reflection. I want us to look at ourselves and the world we create," he says.

Del grew up in an area in England where there was a large skinhead community. "They were my neighbors," he says. Del adds that he was verbally threatened many times. "Not actually being beaten didn't lessen the fear for me when I was a boy. I knew they hurt people. And since Obama was elected, the number of skinhead groups in the U.S. has increased dramatically. It's frightening."

Although the "Soulciology" constructions are instantly striking, you have to look at them a while to really see them for what they are. Del says that is a deliberate choice on his part. "I want my work to make people stop and think. Even if you're looking at something terrible, I want you to look at it and then talk about it," he says.

So far, Del says the responses to his exhibit have all been positive. "I wondered if I'd get some negative responses, but so far people have had conversations with me and with one another," he says. "That's what I want to do as an artist, create a dialogue and inspire change within people."

The Thorndike Gallery is located at 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., next to the Schneider Museum of Art at SOU. "Soulciology" can be seen through Nov. 30.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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