We Are In Depression But We Are Not Depressed: Charles White, A Retrospective

Art Institute of Chicago

Drawn to the inherent need to freeze an image in time, leave traces to document what was happening when it was happening, Charles White, a native Chicagoan who began his formal art education at The Art Institute of Chicago, brings forth a literal representation of lives of the African-Americans through a lens where it is difficult to fathom where he stood in context. A lot of it feels like a robust statement of solidarity, wanting to be one with the subject while a lot of it looks like it is captured through the eyes of a photographer holding a microscopic lens to reality.


Using a highly realistic way to approach the desire to engage with mainstream art discourses while embracing the specifics and nuances of Black identity and experience, Charles White’s art manages to form a language around unexplored dimensions of black lives from 1918 through 1979. He deals with emotions delicately, almost with a carving knife, careful of what to not scrap off from the canvas to create a narrative in every image in itself. Charles white’s black humans, done in charcoal and pencils and lithography shine and shimmer. Walking through the retrospective is an uneven, unsettling glimpse into the reality on a life and culture that is known and familiar, but uncomfortable to behold and acknowledge; Or maybe does not have to vocabulary to. What words describe a man’s process of walking into a life, building a society in a space where he has no inherent place in?

James Baldwin in his book, In The Fire Next Time says “there has been almost no language” to describe the black life. “Neither its horrors nor the pleasures,” adds bell hooks in Black Looks. And then comes Charles White, who was possibly in search of one himself. Using everything within his eyesight and his grasp, Charles White’s challenge to find artistic language to express difference almost requires no words. The narrative, spoken of black lives through black eyes adds dimensions to lives and culture and society; correcting the record on the African-American experience in this country.


While the cross-hatching is unlike anything I have seen before, it is the eyes, that he has so eloquently concentrated on, chosen to super-impose context and figures to just document, before making a statement. Very fluid, very graceful lines speak in a blocky narrative and extra-ordinary detail about the lives, the grief and the loss experienced in the African American lives in and around the world war two to the civil rights movement. There is a distinct cubism in the way he approaches portraits while keeping the emotions, as human as possible, not twisted into grotesque and undesirable. There is an eloquent despondency which flows through the curving lines and bodies which are twisted to fit into bolder frames; the language speaking of an unrequited desire, of wanting to curve gracefully and being forced to take a turn due to segregation.

Charles white stands tall in solidarity of the aliens. Of the dreamers, the language-less, the rebels, musicians and artists and workers and laborer’s who have been given no space to be but have been used mercilessly, squirmed and squished till there was nothing left but a sense of feeling empty.

There is no sense of mockery. No accusations. His art speaks without instructing the viewer as to what to feel. But when the body contorts itself to try to find a place in a painting and does not; there is a distinct sense of unease, almost voyeuristic; To try to find a place in an already lacking space.

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There are also no heroes, just human beings who get tired, who need comfort, who feel, who wait, sleep and dance and sing in times of tragedies. Emotions that explore the turbulent life of an outcast culture who was never given the grace and dignity of appearing human. The people in Charles White’s art radiate substance, presence, and agency. They act as deliberate correctives to the rampant misrepresentation of blacks in white-controlled mainstream history and art. Giving names and faces and actual human traits through the eyes of someone who was right there; Without a filter.


Published by darshitajain

artist | poet | journalist | human

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