Robert Colescott Asks Us to Reimagine Icons of American History

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American painter Robert Colescott understood that whoever paints the past, shapes the past. Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, for instance, depicts white Revolutionary War soldiers as heroic patriots, reinforcing figments of American cultural identity. Leveraging satire, Colescott reimagines Leutze’s iconic work, swapping George Washington for George Washington Carver, a pioneering agricultural scientist who was born into slavey in 1860. Surrounding Carver, Colescott places a cast of Black characters whose caricature-like representations are clearly informed by racist popular imagery. In doing so, Colescott exposes America’s stereotypical representations in the country’s past and challenges viewers to reconsider their own historical knowledge and perceptions of Black Americans. A masterwork of sheer social and political force, Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware, 1975, is a highlight of the Contemporary Art Evening Auction, taking place in New York on 12 May.

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