|Michael Ray Charles, White Power (REWOP ETIHW), hand-colored etching, edition of 50, 1994.|
Twenty years ago Michael Ray Charles came to Flatbed to create an etching for the Texas Fine Art's annual membership print. He was a new hire for the University of Texas Department of Fine Art and his work was attracting a great deal of attention nationally and internationally. His paintings were disturbing to many because he used imagery based on stereotypical caricatures of African American people found in popular advertisements during the early to mid twentieth century. Politically correct white artists and collectors had mixed feelings about Charles' work. My first reaction was a sense of discomfort and shame stemming from the fact that images like his had existed to degrade and demean African American people since the Jim Crow era. Some African American artists and collectors had angry reactions. Perhaps they felt that these images were too much of a reminder and reinforcement of the widely believed stereotypes laid on people of color.
|Michael Ray Charles signing "BLACK CATS GO OFF"|
For his Flatbed Portfolio I print, Michael created a hand-colored etching that featured a caricature of an African American boy eating a watermelon against a distressed, degraded background. This is the kind of image you could find in American advertisements of the early to mid-twentieth century. The image was deeply etched into a scarred, irregularly shaped copper plate and when printed gave the appearance of a weathered and disintegrating broadside. I found it uncomfortable to print this image at first, but the added backwards printed text, ETIHW REWOP, reshaped the image contextually. The image was transformed into a statement about the backwards impact of "White Power." Michael explained that the image was created by whites but believed by blacks. Now the image stood as an empty, backwards icon that should not and would not hold truth. The power of the image was deconstructed just as a backwards reading WHITE POWER no longer made sense.
REWOP ETIHW, more often referred to as WHITE POWER, was released as a Flatbed publication in 1994. It was not a popular print until 1997, when Michael's exhibitions in Austin, Germany and New York started receiving acclaim. His images and ideas started to be understood and embraced. In 2000, the Museum of Modern Art bought an impression for their collection, and over the next few years sales increased until all of Flatbed's impressions were sold.
Recently, a collector who owns two impressions of WHITE POWER informed me that she was willing to sell both impressions and I have agreed to list these for sale on our web site. The unique numbers of these impressions are 2/50 and 3/50. Both impressions have been framed professionally. This rare opportunity allows me the chance to show and write about WHITE POWER once again. For more information, you can contact me, Katherine Brimberry, through Flatbed Press.
It is said that the truth will set you free, even when it is uncomfortable. Today when I see Michael's etchings created in 1994, those feelings of shame are gone and replaced by an awareness of the present. The truth is that there are other stereotypical images that exist and live in movies, television, newspapers, novels and music that spread ideas of prejudice, racial stereotypes and racial profiling. These images are often more subtle than the WHITE POWER image, but they can be believed and ultimately do damage to us all.
For more information about Michael's work visit Flatbed's artist page at MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, see his interview on Art21 or visit his University of Texas website. If you are interested in WHITE POWER, contact Flatbed Press at 512.477.9328 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.