The 1997 painting in question is titled "Bamboozled," the same name as Spike Lee’s 2000 film in which Charles was a visual consultant. The movie is a satire about a man who pitches the idea for a television show that brings back the practice of minstrelsy in an effort to get fired, but the show becomes a big hit instead.
Charles claims that his painting inspired the film because Lee owns the painting, but Lee denies the painting being his inspiration, according to an article published in the magazine "Black Issues in Higher Education." Charles was unable to be reached for comment by The State Press prior to publication.
The film includes two African American men who don black face. It is unclear what race the two men in Charles' painting are.
The painting depicts two men in blackface behind phrases like “America’s #1 movie!” and “This laughter never stops!” The poster is reminiscent of advertisements for minstrel shows, and much of his art represents minstrelsy and the stereotypes these shows perpetrated.
There has been much debate within the artistic community over Charles' paintings and whether blackface, even when depicted by a black artist like Charles, has a place in contemporary art. Because of ASU Art Museum’s approval of the painting for exhibition, that debate has made its way to ASU.
Former Project Space residency coordinator and designer Kev Nemelka voiced his aversion to the painting, citing his own racial identity as part of his objection. He said that the images featured by Charles depict people of color in a negative light, using caricatures of slavery and African Americans to represent people who "look like him."
“I’m half Polynesian, so I’m pretty ambiguously non-white, and I’m often mistaken for someone who might be part black,” Nemelka said. “So, to me, the images were offensive on a personal level."
Opposition to Charles work appears to date back to the '90s, when a University of Texas periodical called ArtLies called a symposium in Houston for African American artists to talk about black issues within the context of art. Most of the conversation pertaining to Charles and his artwork did not paint his status in the black arts community as positive.
Later in the same issue, artist Garry Reece wrote an open letter in which he decries Charles’ work for perpetuating the stereotypes he claims to be unpacking, leaving African American children susceptible to further self-hatred. Reece wrote in the letter, “Michael, if no one has told you, I will tell you now. These stereotypes that haunt your paintings are FALSE.”
However, there are others within the African American community who embrace Charles’ work. He is listed as a “favorite artist” on comedian Chris Rock’s official website.
The ASU Art Museum stands by its choice to show the painting.
“Context is everything,” museum director Miki Garcia said. “We have a lot of rigor, and we have a lot of process in the way that we put our exhibitions together.”
Steven Tepper, the dean of ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, agrees that context is important when examining art, and said that it cannot just be taken at its face value.
“Symbols are not interpreted just on their own, in isolation, sitting up on a glass table with no context,” he said. “I think you can have the same symbol interpreted very differently based on who the author or the artist is, where it’s showing and what it’s adjacent to. It’s very complex."
Garcia also found issue with the painting coming under fire while at the ASU Art Museum.
“Certainly, I wouldn’t be getting this question if that work was at (The Studio Museum), so why am I getting this question here?” she said referring to The Studio Museum in Harlem, a museum comprised of art by African American artists.
This isn't the first time the local arts community has had to reckon with the use of blackface. The Phoenix Institute for Contemporary Art was forced to take down an exhibition in its gallery on Roosevelt Row that featured depictions of a white artist in blackface in December 2017.
Garcia said the controversy surrounding this painting and others will be central in an April 12 discussion hosted by the museum titled "Not Here, Not Now, Not That: Protest Over Culture in America."
Tepper said he will be examining censorship and the “role of controversy in a democracy and the need to embrace it, to hear all voices when people disagree about powerful symbols.”
Nemelka said that he, along with other museum staff members, voiced his opposition to the artwork before it was put on display, but said he was told not putting it up would constitute as censorship. However, he disagrees with how the museum defines censorship.
“Censorship is more of a thing when something is already up and then you take it down out of public eye after the public has already seen it,” he said. “So, approving a preliminary curatorial list and taking something off does not count as censorship.”
The controversy highlights the ongoing debate in artistic spaces of whether or not contemporary art institutions should ban blackface and other potentially harmful images from their walls.
Emilie Sitzia, associate professor of arts and literature at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, argued in a 2017 article that "the apparent neutrality of museums’ discourse and invisibility of their positioning can lead to a reinforcement of oppressive and exclusionary structures."
But Garcia voiced her opposition to museums censoring potentially offensive imagery.
“It is our role as museums to facilitate (dialogue), and present (ideas) in programmatic ways so that audiences can engage with them,” Garcia said.
Tepper agrees with her.
“Increasingly, we live in a world where if you go to an exhibit and you don’t like something, you can … communicate your feelings about it and tell people ‘I am not OK with this.’ And that is an exercise of democratic voice," Tepper said. "That’s beautiful. Better that than all these symbols living in the world with nobody commenting on them.”
But Nemelka said that "showing blackface is just never appropriate."
Editor’s note: Due to a sourcing error, an earlier version if this story referred to The Studio Museum as ‘a’ studio museum. The article has been updated to reflect this change.