Standing tall and proud: Exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum pays tribute to African Americans

  • Courtney Waring, the Carle Museum’s director of education, pauses at a case featuring tools Kadir Nelson used for his paintings in his collaborative book with poet Kwame Alexander, “The Undefeated.”  STAFF PHOTO

  • In his painting “The Talented Tenth,” Kadir Nelson honors an all-black regiment that served with Union forces during the U.S. Civil War. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A display of drawings Kadir Nelson did in his youth is included in the exhibit “The Undefeated,” in the central gallery at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kadir Nelson’s painting “Unspeakable (Middle Passage)” recalls the horror aboard slave ships that took Africans to America in the transatlantic slave trade. STAFF PHOTO

  • “Unafraid (Red, White, and Weary Blues),” a painting by Kadir Nelson from “The Undefeated,” his collaborative book with poet Kwame Alexander, is part of an exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO

  • In “The Cool Ones,” Kadir Nelson celebrates iconic African American musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.  STAFF PHOTO

  • STAFF PHOTO

  • A self-portrait by Kadir Nelson, signed “88,” is part of the exhibit “The Undefeated” included in an exhibit of his work at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO

  • A drawing Kadir Nelson made as a child is included in an exhibit of his work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO

  • Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • “The Undefeated” celebrates famous Black artists such as sculptor Augusta Savage and novelist Langston Hughes. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Faces of the future: This painting is the last one that appears in the book version of “The Undefeated.” Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Olympic great Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Summer Games in Berlin in 1936, is celebrated in “The Undefeated.” courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Civil rights protestors in the 1960s included the late John Lewis, at left, who became a key figure in the movement and later a U.S. Congressman. Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Published: 12/24/2021 11:13:59 AM
Modified: 12/24/2021 11:13:43 AM

It started with a poem, an ode to African Americans and their courage and determination to build meaningful lives in a nation that stacked the odds against them.

Then it became an award-winning children’s book, “The Undefeated,” that coupled the words of Kwame Alexander to the paintings of Kadir Nelson to tell that story of black resilience in a graphic format.

Now it’s an exhibit, a full display of the original paintings by Nelson that help celebrate the work of African American activists, artists, athletes and everyday people who have made deep contributions to American culture and history — ideally giving hope to the next generation of young Black people.

“The Undefeated,” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, features 16 large oil paintings from the 2019 children’s book of the same name, which won three of the most distinguished awards for children’s literature: a Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award (for Nelson’s paintings) and a Newbery Honor (for Alexander’s text).

“The Undefeated” is the second full exhibit of Nelson’s work the Carle has mounted; the museum previously displayed his paintings of famous players from baseball’s Negro Leagues. Nelson’s work has also been part of a number of group shows at the museum over the last few years.

Nelson’s current show runs through April 3.

Nelson is an acclaimed artist and children’s book author in California whose work is part of several museum collections and on U.S. commemorative stamps, and his artwork has also been featured on 16 New Yorker magazine covers. He paints in a rich, atmospheric style that recalls the work of old European masters as well as iconic American artists such as Edward Hopper.

His portraits in “The Undefeated” also stand out because he’s created nearly all of them against plain white backdrops. In those paintings can be seen some of the most iconic African American figures in history: Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald.

But regular folks are also part of this narrative, including a black family of five dressed in early 20th-century clothing, that Alexander’s poem pays tribute to as “The ones who survived / America / by any means necessary.”

Courtney Waring, the Carle Museum’s director of education, says she’s particularly impressed with the way Nelson has coupled his images to Alexander’s words to unveil a narrative that makes connections between past and present, from references to the transatlantic slave trade to the civil rights era to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The way these words and paintings come together creates such a powerful story,” she said during a recent tour of the exhibit.

The painting from the book’s first page, for instance, depicts Jesse Owens, the track star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, in the middle of his win in the long jump at the Games. Alexander’s poem begins with the words “This is for the unforgettable. / The swift and sweet ones / who hurdled history / and opened up a world / of possible.”

Another painting commemorates African Americans who fought on the Union side during the Civil War — the soldiers who, as Alexander writes in his poem “carried the red, white and Weary Blues / on the battlefield / to save an imperfect union.”

Though she enjoys all of Nelson’s work, Waring, an art history major in college, says she’s particularly taken by a panel of mostly 20th-century African American artists including sculptor Augusta Savage, novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and collagist Romare Bearden. The colorful backdrop, unlike the plain backgrounds of Nelson’s other paintings, is also a tribute to the style of Aaron Douglas, a renowned painter of the Harlem Renaissance.

“I really like the way [Nelson] added that touch here,” Waring said.

Along with paintings that celebrate people are those that recognize the victims of racism and segregation. Using a line from Alexander’s poem — “This is for the unspeakable” — Nelson offers an image of four young black girls who were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights era. Portraits of the four girls are shown in framed photographs whose glass has been shattered.

Nelson’s one abstract image in “The Undefeated” is a powerful one, consisting of dozens and dozens of naked black bodies, lined up in tight rows like sardines, in a reference to the transatlantic slave trade. By some estimates, well over 15% of people captured in Africa and brought to North and South America died en route due to the hellish conditions on slave ships.

Ultimately, though, both Alexander’s poem and Nelson’s paintings offer a positive message. One painting, taken from the last two pages of the book, features the faces of several smiling Black children. 

In an afterword in the book, Alexander, who’s also a children’s book writer, says he began writing his poem in 2008 as a tribute to his new daughter, Samayah, and to Barack Obama after he was elected president. He wanted to chronicle the history that brought the country “to this historic moment,” he writes, and to “remind Samayah and her friends and her family and all of you, to remind myself, to never, ever give up.”

For his part, Nelson added birds and butterflies to some of the paintings on the latter pages of “The Undefeated.” As he said during an awards ceremony for the book last year, those airborne critters function both as a “visual device” to help more the story along, but also to celebrate “the spirit of African American people, the spirit of excellence, resistance, beauty, pride, love, and the universe.”

“That’s one of the things I like the most [about the exhibit], the way it gives hope to children that things can change, that there can be a better future,” Waring said.

In addition to Nelson’s paintings, the Carle exhibit features some of the artist’s early drawings, including one he did of Mr. Spock, the character from the “Star Trek” series, at age 9, and another he did of basketball legend Michael Jordan. There’s also a reading area in the gallery with books illustrated by Nelson, as well as children’s books about many of the people featured in the exhibit paintings.

More information about “The Undefeated” and the Eric Carle Museum can be found at carlemuseum.org.




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