Brut portraiture

Inmate Manning’s art part of outsider tradition
By IAN PAIGE  |  September 12, 2006

TEACH, SISTER. TEACH!: Thomas William Manning, oil on canvas, 18"x24", 2005
The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.
-Assata Shakur, activist

If the paintings of Thomas William Manning weren’t surrounded by controversy and making potent political fodder, there would be little reason to discuss them. He is not an exceptional painter. He’s not even a particularly good painter, though to be fair he is clearly on his way to developing a refined technical skill, as evidenced by the increasing quality of his body of work.

But he is a man with ideals in an exceptional situation. These circumstances and intent cannot be separated from the artwork, and form a mandate to approach them critically.

His collected landscapes of the Third World and portraits of activists and agitators are more in an outsider tradition of Art Brut that suggests the viewer interpret the work through a lens other than the one used by the traditional art world. More important when reflecting on Manning’s portraiture work is to see a personal expression from a man whose expression is limited due to incarceration, and a desire to speak for a politicized people.

Whether you call Manning a revolutionary political prisoner or a terrorist cop-killer, taking an objective stance on his artistic goals is to see a method of image-making that illuminates polarities in and race. Regardless of who the good guys and bad guys are, the work of a revolutionary artist is to make you notice that there is a long and continuing struggle between opposing views. When a winner writes history (consider President Bush’s disconcerting new motto, “Let history decide”), the losers are cast as terrorists and criminals. Manning posits with his celebratory portraits that to many people throughout the United States and the rest of the world, the subjects of his paintings are heroes.

Manning utilizes a longstanding tradition of iconographic portraiture to increase the cult of personality of his revolutionary subjects to achieve this aim of apotheosis. Such a phrase brings to mind sinister images of Stalin plastered in every corner of the USSR or the ubiquitous, looming nature of Orwell’s Big Brother.

Before you think the cult of personality is just for commies and pinkos, note how the government of the United States creates a mythology out of its presidents. Portraits of these statesmen deify leaders as wise and infallible, standing outside time and context. The picture of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill does little to explain the cultural context for his extermination of countless American Indians, or his opposition to the very Federal Bank that slapped him on the bill.

The viewer of this politicized art has a responsibility to unpack the contradictory interpretations of history and contemporary mediated viewpoints. Manning’s finest portrait is “Teach, Sister. Teach!” which delivers a powerful image of Assata Shakur, known for her activism with the Black Panther party. She is a convicted felon and fugitive living in asylum in Cuba. She is the aunt of Tupac Shakur and has been honored by politically motivated rappers like Mos Def and Common. She is also known as a cop-killer. Manning’s portrait is designed to literally bring her visage into view so that you are confronted with her story. Why is she so important to both sides of the political battle? How will you find out more about her?

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