Jennifer Mack-Watkins: Children of the Sun

March 18 - June 13, 2021

Take a virtual tour of the exhibit

The critique of the lack of positive representation and images of Black bodies in media, art, and literature may seem new, but back in 1920 it was already of concern to W.E.B. Du Bois, who sought ways to circumvent structured efforts to oppress the Black community. In collaboration with Augustus Granville Dill and Jessie Fauset, Du Bois developed The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for Children of the Sun, which featured stories, games, art, poetry, and positive images celebrating African American identity. It was a platform that encouraged its young readers to aspire to positions of leadership within their communities. What Du Bois saw that we only see now in hindsight (while others knew all along) is how Black children, in their creativity and their potential, were suppressed through a lack of positive visual representation and a school system built upon structurally racist methodologies.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Brownies’ Book, visual artist Jennifer Mack-Watkins draws on the illustrative imagery found in this groundbreaking magazine to create a body of work that recalls its political, empowering, and whimsical sensibility. Using the medium of printmaking, Mack-Watkins mirrors the genre-bending literary approach taken by the magazine’s editors. She weaves images and narratives from a variety of sources, in addition to The Brownies; Book, including accounts from Vermont storyteller, poet, and activist Daisy Turner (1883-1988) of her childhood stand against racism and research findings inspired by the book Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga by Jane C. Beck.

Mack-Watkins’s dolls appear ethereal in nature but stand poised and resolute. Their eyes control the gaze, looking back at us with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and an inner humor only they know. With titles like Harriet, Elizabeth, Langston, and Maya and a composition that frames the figures in an arch, Mack-Watkins shares a vision of childhood that verges on the sacred. In art history, the arch can sometimes symbolize a threshold separating our world from the divine, and in this way Mack-Watkins canonizes these important figures. Omitting their last names alludes to their forthcoming journey into greatness.

In all her work, Mack-Watkins investigates societal conventions that isolate and confine individuals into predefined identities. With Children of the Sun, she helps us recognize that a representation of one’s self, a community, and a race can be embodied in something as seemingly commonplace as a child’s doll. One hundred thirty years ago, a Black baby doll became a symbol for possibility and empowerment when a young Vermont native, Daisy Turner, was instructed to hold one while reciting a poem written by her white teacher. At the last minute, the eight-year-old Turner resisted and spontaneously made up her own poem, recognizing her individuality and self-worth.

In Children of the Sun, Mack-Watkins’s delicate and expressive work examines ideas of oral history, memory, literature, and resilience. Her images explore the ways these elements influence our internal and external visions of and for ourselves, while emphasizing the importance of possibility, potential, and self-realization. The sentiment Mack-Watkins shares through the cherub faces of her baby doll prints echoes the words in fayemi shakur’s poem, also featured in the exhibition,“You are worthy of joy / Worthy of safety / Deserving of a childhood filled with play” (lines 28-30).

— David Rios Ferreira, Guest Curator

My current body of work is part of an ongoing celebration of the beauty, importance, and complexity of positive representation of African American children in literature, media, and pop culture. I am interested in using aesthetics as a form of resistance against the erasure and invisibility of African American culture.

I recently came across an image of “The Negro Silent Protest Parade” organized by the NAACP.  The image showed 10,000 African Americans, some of whom were children, dressed in white clothing and marching silently down Fifth Avenue in New York City on July 28, 1917. At first, I thought it was a celebratory parade, but when I looked further, I discovered that it was the total opposite. The parade was held to protest and mourn the 40 men, women, and children who lost their lives in a race riot in East St. Louis in 1917. I was affected by this imagery because these children were beautifully dressed and were called to protest a horrific tragedy as a form of activism, in order to remember how their own communities were impacted by the physical act of racism and discrimination based on the color of their skin. The image appeared in the very first issue of The Brownies’ Book in January 1920.

Historically, and still today, the Black body has been mutilated, warranted, violated, attacked, targeted, protested, kidnapped, abused, and mocked in the media. Black children were painted negatively through stereotypical imagery in children’s stories that represented my community as other and less than. There were very few books where children could see themselves in an uplifting and positive way. Created by W.E.B. Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP and editor of The Crisis, The Brownies’ Book became the first publication aimed at children, with the purpose to uplift, promote self-esteem, and educate about the contributions of African Americans. For this exhibition, I chose to reject negative portrayals by depicting my own expressive ideas as a response to oral history, memory, literature, childhood, and period fashion.

I am always searching for positive ways that I can encourage my own children to play and use their imaginations. It’s important for me to find toys that look like my daughter in order to build her self-confidence. I’m always on the hunt for children’s books, coloring books, and dolls that offer a positive representation of African American children. As a child born and raised in South Carolina, it was hard for me to find toys that looked like me. The dolls I have reimagined here represent that very hope, joy, and awareness of the world that I seek for my own children. Each doll is given a role to become part of the future. I chose to name them after famous African Americans who have made an impact on our history—names like Katherine, Carter, Guion, Langston, Harriet, and Emma.

For these works on paper, I chose the medium of printmaking because of my fascination with the process of layering elements, textures, and colors upon one another to create a uniform image through sequential stages. I believe in the beauty of printmaking and its history of being a source of communication. Prints exist as multiples, which enables them to become part of a larger dialogue. In my prints, I combine digital methods with hand-drawn additions to create narratives based on particular ideas. I use photographic imagery from vintage magazines, advertisements, newspapers, and literature as a way to counteract how media and popular culture flood society with harmful, stereotypical perceptions of my culture.

Children of the Sun demonstrates how a child’s innocence can be seen as an act of hope and resilience. Through my art, I seek to provide a sense of assurance for all African American children and hope the work encourages imagination and aspiration. In the same way, I hope to encourage children to enjoy childhood while being aware of the injustices and challenges that lie ahead of them.

Jennifer Mack-Watkins

RELATED EVENTS

April 21, Wednesday, 7 p.m. Artist & Curator Conversation: Children of the Sun
April 28, Wednesday, 7 p.m. — Holding Space: Reflections on Children of the Sun
May 4, Tuesday, 7 p.m. Black Representation in Children’s Literature
May 15, Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Celebration of Spring Exhibits
May 19, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. — 
Illuminating History: The Vermont African American Heritage Trail

RELATED RESOURCES

Photo Gallery
Exhibit Catalogue
Virtual Tour
Ask the Artist!

RELATED LINKS

Journey’s End: The Memories and Traditions of Daisy Turner and her Family
Telling Daisy Turner’s Story
Vermont African American Heritage Trail
Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity
Vermont Folklife Center: Daisy Turner
Windham Foundation: The Turner Homestead
The Root Social Justice Center

SELECTED PUBLICITY

Inspired By Vermonter’s 1890s Poem, Artist Celebrates Positive Black Representation – VPR (4/3/21)
11 Must-See Black Art Exhibitions Opening This Spring – Essence (3/24/21)
9 Art Exhibitions Worth Masking Up for This SpringVogue (3/19/21)
Celebrating Black Children in America – The New York Times (3/8/21)