Let’s Talk About Race: 14 Atlantans on how far we’ve come—and how far we still have to go

Seven works of art that explore race in America

Ervin A. Johnson's "J.R."

Ervin A. Johnson
Photo-based mixed media, 2015
Selected by Arnika Dawkins

Arnika Dawkins Gallery features fine art photography created by artists of the African diaspora or about people of African descent. Contemporary African American artists, notes Dawkins, are creating work that forces us to think about the current climate. Dawkins explains why she selected this portrait: “It is a Millennial’s response to the Black Lives Matter Movement from Johnson’s #InHonor series. Inspired by abstract expressionism, he reimagines the pigment in the photograph to signify his cultural and racial identity. He is paying homage to the lives that have been lost in the present-day struggle for equality. And he also wants to renegotiate black identity and its place in history.”

Jamaal Barber's “Until”

Jamaal Barber
Screenprint, 2017

Barber is an Atlanta artist whose work was recently shown at Fulton County’s Southwest Arts Center. “Race has always been an important, if not the most important, factor in American history. It is impossible to understand where America is as a country or move forward to heal the racial divide, until you truly deal with the legacy of America’s race-based policy. I created the American Color Theory book to explore what its means to be black in America. The book begins with this admonition.”

Yehimi Cambron's “Monarch Butterfly”

Yehimi Cambron
“Monarch Butterfly”
Mural, 2017
Selected by Monica Campana

Peru native Monica Campana, executive director of Living Walls, feels this work has a powerful message for Atlanta. “Cambron, a courageous and talented artist, teacher, and proud DACA recipient, is one of the most prolific and outspoken artists on Buford Highway. I love her mural because, aside from its being her first public art, it is a gift to all immigrants who live on Buford Highway. Monarch butterflies are a symbol of immigration. It tells everyone that this is home and that people are here to support and fight for our immigrant communities.”

Delphine Fawundu's “What Do They Call Me? My Name is Aunt Sarah.”

Delphine Fawundu
“What Do They Call Me? My Name is Aunt Sarah.” 2010
Selected by Arnika Dawkins

Inspired by singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone’s song “Four Women,” Fawundu’s work “compels us to confront the labels that we and others place on ourselves,” says Arnika Dawkins, owner of Arnika Dawkins Gallery. “Fifty years after King’s death, we must still overcome the burden of perception.”

Jamaal Barber's “To Be Free”

Jamaal Barber
“To Be Free”
Carved wood block, 2017

“To be black in America is to constantly be working to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of freedom,” Barber says. “There has been a system in place that negatively perceives blackness and acts to oppress people based on race. You must stand strong in yourself against the forces attempting to keep you down.”

Deborah Roberts's “The Righteous One”

Deborah Roberts
“The Righteous One”
Mixed media on paper, 2017, collection of Sharon and John Hoffman (Kansas City).
Selected by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, PhD

Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, PhD, is director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, which aims to inspire the college community and the general public through art by women of the African diaspora. She chose this image by Roberts, whose work is on display through May 19 at the museum. “Roberts’s visually arresting collages encourage important conversations about girlhood, vulnerability, body image, popular culture, self-image, and the dysfunctional legacy of colorism. Through her provocative works, which are in alignment with contemporary conversations, she examines the weight that society places on black girls.”

Note: Spelman’s exhibition Deborah Roberts: The Evolution of Mimi will run through May 19.

Fabiola Jean-Louis's “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting”

Fabiola Jean-Louis
“Madame Beauvoir’s Painting”
Archival pigment print on hot press bright paper, 2016, courtesy of the artist and Alan Avery Art Company, collection of Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Purchased with support from Robyn and Frank Sims.
Selected by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, PhD

Brownlee explains her choice of this image from Spelman’s permanent collection: “Jean-Louis is a Brooklyn-based photographer known for her lush, richly textured series of photographs of black women wearing elaborate paper gowns, which resemble fabric at first blush. The viewer is drawn to the painting that Madame Beauvoir has just completed and is compelled by her rendering of the scarred back of a black male who evocatively recalls Gordon, the escaped slave also known as Whipped Peter, who was disfigured by brutal whippings. Photographs of Gordon’s mutilated back taken during his medical examinations were circulated by abolitionists. Those same images were featured in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, one of the most widely read publications during the Civil War, inspiring many free black men to enlist in the Union Army. Those scars and the intricate embellishments on the back of Madame Beauvoir’s delicate paper gown collectively signal the multilayered, emotional, and complicated links between brutality, racially motivated injustice, paper and its use as currency, policy, alleged criminality, and even the Declaration of Independence—connections which remain relevant today.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.