Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Creating Positive Images

Country People (top) and City People by Eric Basir

Ever since I was a child, I was sensitive to the deficit in positive images of Black people. I think it was the television series based on Alex Haley's Roots. I was only 4 years old at the time. However, I connected with the character of Kunta Kinte (played by the most excellent Thespian and Educator, LaVar Burton).

He stood his ground and made sure no one would make him—nor his descendants—forget his African heritage. He was a moral and strong man.

An Ikere door made by Olowe of Ise
Recently, while browsing a book called African Art: The Barbier-Mueller Collection, I was inspired by the Osi-Ilorin style carvings from the Yoruba people in Nigeria. The photo at left from, shows a good example of the reliefs describing the life and activities of various people. They also resemble reliefs I've seen from Aztec, Mayan and Egyptian art.

So I embarked on creating Country People and City People vector carvings (which happen to be available as Royalty-Free through Fotolia and other stock sites). I intentionally illustrated the people with distinctly aboriginal features, accentuating the beauty of their broad noses and large lips. They are happy, dignified, hard-working and not all too different than any other folk around the world. I apologetically drew them fully clothed and modest. This too, was intentional.

I also purposely included African Islamic elements to counter the stereotypes regarding Muslims. Although the clothing worn by the characters I made are seen in non-Muslim cultures of Africa, I believe it is subtle enough to influence the viewer toward a pluralistic attitude regarding Muslims.

Country People is my favorite of the two. Simply put, I'm an organic gardener who strives to incorporate "green" or sustainable practices in my everyday affairs. I also have been reading about owls with my children. The giraffe is distinctly African and I wanted him/her to be close to the farmers.

Everything in these drawings has a meaning. Some of it is personal, with very little to do with preaching a message. For example, the train in City People: Specifically, the same red No. 2 train, which used to stop a few blocks away from my apartment when we lived in the Bronx (New York City). The portrait hanging on the wall in the house of Country People resembles a certain American president whose father was born in Africa.

All too often, we are pummeled with images and video of people with dark skin, broad noses and large lips as savage, comical and cowardly—even in this so-called post-racial American society with a handsome president of mixed African and white American ancestry.

One example is in the sequel to the Transformers motion picture. The Black-skinned people portrayed in the opening scenes were clearly utter savages. The co-star to the hero, a young Latino male, was a sex-crazed coward.

Col. Tigh played by Terry Carter
Also, in the highly successful re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, Colonel Tigh was changed from a brave, serious and father-like Black man played by Terry Carter—as seen in the original 1978-79 show—into a grimy, alcoholic secret Cylon played by Michael Hogan for the 2003-2009 show. Although Herb Jefferson Jr.'s character Boomer was at least re-imagined as an Asian woman, there were absolutely no Black male lead actors in the 2003-2009 show.

On an international level, a famous Mexican television program called La India Maria fostered buffoonery and stereotypes about the indigenous culture of Mexico, while subtly elevating the superiority of white, Spanish identity among the viewers.

The examples are endless. However, I believe it is better to deliver a message instead of a complaint. Clearly, Country People and City People are a dignified counter-measure to the trend I described. Even if one disagrees that such a trend exists—or has an real impact on the minds of consumers—images which portray any human beings engaged in productive activities is welcome. I hope to continue creating more such illustrations—especially of Latino people.