Denise Frazier reviews Dr. Nikki Brown's exhibition at the McKenna Museum.
Dr. Nikki Brown
George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art
2003 Carondelet Street
December 13, 2013–March 15, 2014
“You are a part of this world!” says Herreast J. Harrison as she bends down to meet the face of a young boy at the McKenna Museum, where photographs on the wall celebrate her husband Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. and his legacy as a father, leader, and community member. The pictures of Big Chief Harrison hang alongside photographs by scholar and documentarian Dr. Nikki Brown to make a powerful statement about African-American men in New Orleans. Dr. Brown presents unsensational, slice-of-life, and, at times, truly mundane subject matter to express with intentionality the viewing and humanizing of African-American men. What Dr. Brown calls “the extraordinary ordinariness” of black men’s lives—tying a tie, coaching a team, or taking a customer’s order at a restaurant—becomes testament to African-American men as socially responsible, supportive, and hard working. The photographs provide a counter narrative to the barrage of vilifying media images that would seek to prove otherwise and the racist discourses that commonly accompany those images.
Dr. Brown describes the privilege of the “ordinary” as a luxury that African-American men have not long been able to afford. The muted stare of the young man resting against the painted street pipe in Working at Café Du Monde, the little boy whose ears are gently lifted by the hands of the barber in Rites 1, these subtle, black-and-white portraits offer a beautiful contrast to the colorful, flamboyant, and surreal style of the Big Chief's images. The complexity of experiences on display in turn engages the viewer in a fascinating evaluation and re-evaluation of the way we see African-American men, alternatively asking then daring us to return the gaze.