While much art is made to convey beauty, it’s also a good medium for communicating ideas and truths about very un-beautiful things. Jennifer Johns, a graduate student earning her MFA of photography at Brooks Institute, uses visuals to tackle disturbing and controversial subjects in an effort to surmount the ignorance that often surrounds social issues. In The Visual Indoctrination of the Bigot, poignant mixed-media pieces currently on display at Gallery 27, Johns does exactly that, explaining that the exhibit aims to “confront stereotypes, specifically those against blacks and women.”
The exhibit is united by a common format — square plywood engravings of strong, positive images surrounded by a multitude of smaller, equally empowering photos that each possess an interactive slide tab or cutout door that reveals Google search results of racist and misogynistic ideas such as “women shouldn’t vote.” The result is an eye-opening and infuriating visual experience.
The first piece to draw me in was titled “Women Shouldn’t.” It features a plywood engraving of a woman standing, the shape of her head cut out and made into a door that opens to reveal Internet results of the most commonly searched phrases such as “women shouldn’t vote” and “women shouldn’t wear pants” — a disturbing reminder of the sexist beliefs that still exist today. However, to juxtapose the nasty bias, Johns has created a border around the plywood of pictures of women voting, teaching, learning, and doing all the things that Google search results said they shouldn’t do in an effort to inspire viewers to combat stereotypes against women.
A second standout of the show is “Blacks Are.” The engraved image on the plywood illustrates a young African-American man in a cap and gown with a face full of happiness. But behind his smile hides another list of offensive Google search results, a modern window to the wicked racism that continues to plague society. Once again, Johns’s border of positive, uplifting images provides an important reminder of the strength and determination that exist in people, despite the swirl of hatred.
Particularly memorable aspects of The Visual Indoctrination of the Bigot are the interactive features on the individual works. The opening doors and sliding tabs that reveal malice behind smiling faces are essential for this work to so fluidly convey a complex message. Johns explains that the storybook-like presentation of her work is intended to echo the innocence and open-mindedness of child’s play to personally engage viewers with the art and make the message of the pieces clear, comprehensible, and utterly impactful. Johns’s decision to juxtapose the grave reality of our media and society with a childlike way of learning is successful in accentuating the egregiousness of the prejudice still thriving around us.