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Gordon Parks

Rhona Hoffman’s current exhibition, “This Land Is Your Land,” examines how American photographer Gordon Parks captured black children during the late twentieth century. Through a series of candid street photographs, the exhibition explores the artist’s relationship with space, the community and anatomy.

“Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama,” from 1956, features two young black boys, their body language, from the smile on one’s face to the look of surprise on the other, opposing one another. The social implications of Alabama in the 1950s and the emotional tribulations that African-American youth endured is brought to the forefront. The bigger question is what lies on the other side of the camera, the side we can’t see. The emotions that these young children express soon encompass the viewer.

Children played a vital position in Park’s career, symbolizing the black experience on an emotional level. The vulnerability they present in the images show them untouched by negative social norms; their skin tones speak to their unknown futures in the American socio-economic system.

“Untitled, Mobile, Alabama,” also from 1956, adds adult perspective into the lives of African-American children. The joy emitting from the faces of the two female subjects is clouded by a tall female behind them looking uneasy. Is she uneasy about their fate? The adult woman looks at the children, puzzled as they read. The image is taken two years after Brown v. Board of Education, which ended school segregation, and in that year, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that guaranteed public education. The words that these little girls read could easily be seen as their opportunity of educational freedom closing in the adult woman’s eyes.

Detailing the movements of adolescents enabled Parks to expose poignant issues pertaining to racial, social and economic imbalance. The imbalance also revealed a sliver of hope, a possibility that these young black children could mold a future unlike the present.

“Doll Test, Harlem, New York,” (1947) depicts a African-American boy directly pointing to a white doll. The positioning of the young boy’s hands, his relaxed finger and settled eyes looking at the white doll, speaks to the issues of image, of how young children view themselves in a bigger picture. This iconic image documents the infamous psychological experiment that tested the effects of segregation on black children. Also on view are selections from Parks’ 1956 Life magazine photo essay, “A Segregation Story.”

Each image in “This Land Is Your Land” attests to the directness that Parks pushed through his imagery. As a viewer, you are not only a spectator, you become immersed in the experience of social justice advocates and what they saw, what their norm was, and what they were fighting for: the youth. Each onlooker brings their own relationship with race, socioeconomic status and civil rights, creating a deeper, more complex experience then Parks may have imagined. (Caira Moreira-Brown)

“This Land Is Your Land” is on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1711 West Chicago, through February 15.

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