Fine arts faculty show at IU Art Museum becomes ‘critical teaching moment’

Every couple of years, the IU Art Museum hosts an exhibition devoted to recent work by faculty members at the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts — a show that’s often just as exciting for those participating as it is for those viewing it, according to associate professor of ceramics Malcolm Mobutu Smith.

"Two True," by associate ceramics professor Malcolm Mobutu Smith.

“Two True,” by associate ceramics professor Malcolm Mobutu Smith.

“People assume that, because we all work together, we all know what each other is doing,” he said. “But we’re generally in our studios, so this is a great way for us to see what everybody else is doing in their work. It’s gratifying to receive the recognition from the university, and it fosters collaboration between faculty members. Plus, part of our curriculum is that our students be very aware of an artist’s professional life. This way, we can discuss how we chose which work to show, how we edit, the whole process. It becomes a critical teaching moment as well.”

The show opens at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, with a reception in the Thomas T. Solley Atrium in the IU Art Museum, and is on display through March 9 in the Special Exhibitions Gallery and the Judi and Milt Stewart Hexagon Gallery. The School of Fine Arts is part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Several examples of Smith’s recent work will be on display at the show, including a piece titled “Two True” that is part of a ceramics series dealing with issues of race, color and stereotypes.

The three-dimensional sculptural shape is a beautiful green color, with a flat side featuring the painted, stylized images of two white children suggestive of the old “Dick” and “Jane” book characters standing before a black and white background.

"Two True," by associate ceramics professor Malcolm Mobutu Smith.

“Two True,” by associate ceramics professor Malcolm Mobutu Smith.

“With their chubby cheeks and cherubic faces, they’re stereotypically ‘beautiful’ children,'” Smith said. “But on the other side of the piece, viewers can see the caricature-style image of an African American, with cartoon eyes and distorted features. And the word ‘truth’ is etched into the work in a graffiti text.”

Smith said he began the ceramics series after experiencing what he described as “personal anxiety” following the 2008 election of Barack Obama, whose position as the nation’s first black president ignited myriad discussions about race across the country.

“I’m the product of a mixed background, and that sense of identity has never not been present in my life,” he said. “And this sense of being different really reared its head with Obama’s ascendency to the presidency, when it just really felt like the ubiquitousness of racism started becoming more exposed. I was afraid for him, afraid for what was going to happen. I wanted to do something with that anxiety, and began voicing it through my work.”

This series, originally exhibited in Detroit in 2010, has been shown in a number of venues since then, including one that is now a part of the Indiana State Museum’s permanent collection.

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