The paintings are not about people; they are about images. They are about the negative stereotypes that African Americans still buy into. What if the Jews never talked about the holocaust?” (Cohen, 3). Michael Ray Charles explains, due to the colossal amount of hate mail he has received about his paintings. The Forever Free Post lithograph series, like most of Charles work, reveals an unnerving message to African-Americans and Caucasians alike. The resurrection of nineteenth and twentieth century iconic ad icons such as Sambo and Mammy, are more disturbing in the twenty-first century in the climate of tolerance we live in.
This doesn’t stop Charles from recreating timeless imagery to challenge our perception of race. Nor does it seem to affect the value of this neo-traditionalists work. Charles’ paintings and lithographs can be found all over the world at contemporary art museums in New York, London, Milan, Amsterdam and more.
The Forever Free Post is series containing five lithographs which are stylized as nineteenth century circus and product advertisement posters.
These lithographs are on woven paper, and were created with Charles’ signature painting technique of oil wash and copper, distinguishing the look of the past. His signature, a copper penny with the Abraham Lincoln up represents society’s lowest value, the penny, which ironically is a different color than all other American coin currency.
Charles, Michael Ray. Forever Free Post. 1995. Lithograph. Private Collection, New York.
Charles, a Louisiana native, graduated from McNeese State University in 1989 where he earned a BFA in advertising and design.
From there he continued his education at the University of Texas where he received an MFA and later became a teacher at that same university. Charles’ formal art and marketing focus is reflected in everything he creates; he is obsessed with communications. The influences of marketing and consumption on the masses is why he started digging up and analyzing these nineteenth century images. What was the motive behind blackface and other racially driven marketing? What type of values did these messages create and what stereotypes did they perpetuate? Challenging these questions became Charles’ personal dissertation. Many African Americans have criticized his work, claiming Charles is capitalizing on imagery that is shameful to the African-American Heritage. Which Charles replies, “These images are about deconstructing symbols and tracing their history, past and present. They should make everyone uncomfortable.” (Heller 8)
The two-dimensional lithograph above of an African-American lady liberty is a representation of the stereotypical single mom, welfare recipient. The lady liberty, with the emphasized Sambo smile depicting a watermelon, is fulfilling the American dream which is why her hair is blonde. The picture of the baby carriage is part of this false believe system propagated by many politicians over the decades. This image is alluding to the idea that African-American woman have as much children as they possibly can in order to collect more welfare and receive higher tax returns. The stamp that reads, Free as Always on the right side of the lithograph is another racial construct that African-Americans expect everything for free. This image alludes to the rationalities that African-Americans are lazy and will do whatever they can to work over the system. The name of the series depicted on the banner, the Forever Free Post is referring to the emancipation of slavery and its juxtapose brought about by this racially driven imagery.
The thick curved lines of blonde hair coming straight out the top of the liberty crown, is mocking the nappy uncontrollable locks of an African-American woman. Hair dressed in this fashion was the silhouette of all black females in such advertisements. The shape of the down-flowing hair and its wide lines is a joke, extended by the company sponsoring this ad, “Liberty Perm Products.” When you apply a perm solution to African-American hair texture, it actually relaxes the hair as opposed to curls it. Labeling black women’s hair as an uncontrollable mess (because it’s nothing like white women’s hair) thus the cultural buy-in to extensions, relaxers and a religiously tithed fee to the beauty industry.
The watermelon shaped mouth with its straight and thick teeth lines, was used on every black face image in history. The mouth is the implied shape of a watermelon; the watermelon has always been a coining symbol of poverty. The scale of the lips in this image outweigh all other aspects captured; another stereotype of the Africa-American features dating back to images from 4th century BC sculpture.
The color values and textures in this piece, along with all of Michael Ray Charles artwork, is used to imply an old idea. Many of his pieces represent new stereotypes of African-American culture also, yet he uses this same technique of oil and copper washes to present the works as old concepts that have just been reimagined. The lithograph depicted above is a flat image, with minor two-dimensional shading to capture the era of commercial art represented in the Forever Free series. The weathered look creates a visual texture that confuses the viewers as to whether this is an old or new concept, women having babies for money. The cool, ashy tones used on the lithograph are a stark contrast to the illustrated blonde hair, resonating the shock-value of the idea that an African-American woman could ever achieve the same economic and social status of a white, stay at home mom. The pallet of this piece adds to its emotional disturbance. The background colors feel unbalanced and the imagery appears as disproportionate, and confusing to the eye. Which feels part of Charles’ message, that we question the ugliness of its implication and artistic value. Advertisements are premeditated for viewers to not think, just act, but these recreated adverts raise a lot of prickly questions.
One of the most disturbing and demeaning representations within these images are African-American woman depicted as grotesque, unintelligent and child-like. The brain-dead figures illustrated in these classic ads and recreated in the Forever Free Post is desexualizing of African-American women; they are portrayed more like animals than humans.
This lithograph spoke to me because my blood line is from England. Most of my family speaks French and I’m a first generation born in America. I was brought up around people who believed these stereotypes to be the gospel truth. It would not surprise me if my ancestors owned slaves due of my family’s instinctive prejudice nature. I have never subscribed to this belief system. Even as a child there was something deeply uncomfortable about these conversations that were endeavored to be made light in humor. The same spirits of biliousness I used to experience when listening to my extended families banter, is the same feeling I get when I look at the Forever Free Post. Art is supposed to evoke feelings and inspire critical thinking. Many African-Americans react in anger when they see these images and Caucasians turn their heads in shame, including myself. Michael Ray Charles has accomplished his goal within the series. As we question why and when these images were used, which side of the message do you subscribe to?