SF Chronicle Reviews Humanity Today

“Humanity Today,” the Jenkins Johnson Gallery’s latest exhibition, wants people to talk and think and question the world in 2017. The exhibition title itself, open for interpretation, posits the question: What do you, the viewer, believe is the state of humanity today?


The show opened last month and runs through Saturday, March 11. An eclectic collection of seven international artists’ works, “Humanity Today” asks its viewers to consider polarizing, contentious issues such as race, class and gender.


The pieces on display were chosen by Karen Jenkins Johnson, gallery founder and director, for their capacity to spark timely parallels between past and present-day political conversations.


“I wanted this show to evoke discussion about compassion for our fellow man, just to get people thinking about what’s happening globally,” Jenkins Johnson said. “This is a critical time, and the artwork in this show reflects it across the board.”


“Humanity Today” addresses historic events such as the civil rights movement, post-apartheid South Africa and the United States’ isolation of Cuba, and places them in conversation with current events.


On view in the exhibition, Gordon Parks’ images from the civil rights era in 1960s America capture crowds at iconic gatherings like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and Harlem’s Black Muslim Rally. Jenkins Johnson found that these images from half a century ago were all too familiar in 2017.


“The protests going on after the election in Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other places … the Gordon Parks images from 1963 are eerily reflective of that,” she said. “So really, how far have we come?”


“Humanity Today” reflects on historic strides made toward social progress. But more importantly, as conversations about immigration restrictions and border walls, police brutality, President Trump’s Muslim ban, and the debate on transgender bathroom protections dominate our news cycle, this exhibition tries to emphasize the work yet to be done to reach true equality and inclusion in modern society. This reality is present in every piece in this show, and deliberately so.


“It is the responsibility of the artist to reflect what’s currently happening in society,” Jenkins Johnson said. “We as gallerists must allow our artists to do that.”


Parks’ work is chronologically complemented by that of Sadie Barnette, whose discovery of a FBI surveillance file on her father — 500 pages on his work as a founding member of the Black Panther Party’s Compton (Los Angeles County) chapter more than 50 years ago — led to a series of mixed media installations dissecting the relationship between government and grassroots activism. Puerto Rican-born Carlos Javier Ortiz’s 2014 film and photography project, “We All We Got,” captures the deadly effects of gun violence on marginalized youth of color across America, rounding out one of the many narratives in this exhibition inspired by Parks’ images.


While these works primarily analyze politics and race relations within the United States, Jenkins Johnson stresses the significance of the exhibition’s international scope.


“This is not something that is happening domestically, it’s happening globally,” she said. “The same cries are being heard throughout the world.”


As in the United States, artists across the globe have heard these cries and reacted through their craft, also on display in “Humanity Today.”


Employing photography as their chosen medium, Aida Muluneh and Lissette Solorzano take vividly different stylistic approaches — posed, body-painted portraiture and candid documentary photography — to capture class, gender and national identity in their home countries (the artists are based in Ethiopia and Cuba, respectively).


The exhibition further explores the concept of identity in the mixed media works of Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor and South African-born Blessing Ngobeni, who push against narratives of equality in post-apartheid South Africa by exposing discrepancies between the growing number of people living in poverty and the country’s sociopolitical elite.


Jenkins Johnson believes this is what art is for: to challenge people, to keep us from becoming complacent in today’s politically turbulent times.


“This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” she said. “There’s no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we create. This is how civilizations heal.”