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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

New exhibit at UC Davis’ Design Museum documents history of racial issues in the United States

Artist Barbara Brandon-Croft discusses her cartoons and recent exhibition 

 

By LAILA AZHAR — features@theaggie.org 

 

In the late 1960s, Brumsic Brandon Jr. began publishing “Luther,” a comic strip focusing on the lives of young Black children living in a fictional inner-city neighborhood. 

About 20 years later, his daughter, Barbara Brandon-Croft, became the first Black female cartoonist to be nationally syndicated. Her comic strip, “Where I’m Coming From,” details the vast experiences of a group of Black women. Her cartoons cover a wide variety of topics, from relationships to motherhood to workplace discrimination. 

STILL: Racism in America, A Retrospective in Cartoons,” an exhibit featuring the work of both Brandon Jr. and Brandon-Croft, is on display in the UC Davis Design Museum from Jan. 23 to April 23, 2024. 

Presenting the artists’ work together documents a story of racial issues in the United States that spans decades. 

A 1971 cartoon by Brandon Jr. reads, “I just met a cute little girl who just moved here yesterday, and before I could find out her address, she had been urban renewed!”

A 2001 cartoon by Brandon-Croft reads, “Urban renewal? Why not call it what it is: Black folk removal.” 

“I think it’s pretty profound when you can sit there and look at a strip that was done in 1967, and then he may have covered the same thing in 1987, and then me in 1997 and 2017,” Brandon-Croft said. “That’s why [the exhibit is] called ‘STILL.’” 

The exhibit was originally displayed in the Medalia Gallery in New York City and later, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University.

As it made its way to Davis, Brandon-Croft stressed the importance of including the year each cartoon was published, in order to highlight the exhibition’s message of the continuity of struggle. 

“It’s very complicated to move works,” Brandon-Croft said. “But the main thing is, we had to have the years there. That’s the whole point, so you can see that things haven’t changed.” 

Initially, Brandon-Croft had conceptualized the project as a book. She credited curator Tara Nakashima Donahue with the idea to put together an exhibit.

This iteration of the exhibition is the first one to be accompanied by music. Brandon-Croft curated a Spotify playlist to accompany the artwork, which visitors are given access to through a QR code. 

“I tried to shape it so that it reflected what we were talking about — all the themes, including the hopeful ones,” Brandon-Croft said. 

Both Brandon Jr. and Brandon-Croft’s work has been met with backlash. In 1976, a reader upset by the inclusion of Black cartoonists in the newspaper tore out Brandon Jr.’s cartoon and mailed it back to him with a racially charged message written across it. 

“That’s the kind of things we got,” Brandon-Croft said. “I like it when I get that reaction, because it makes me feel like I hit the mark. I got you that upset? Really? This is a cartoon!” 

She carries that same approach to criticisms of her art style. Brandon-Croft’s cartoons include her character’s faces, and occasionally hands, but not the rest of their body. She omits backgrounds and speech bubbles from her work as well, leading to a very minimalist look that draws attention to the character’s expressions and words. 

“Some people say they don’t like how it looks. It’s okay; it’s me,” Brandon-Croft said. 

Her unique style serves a purpose. By solely displaying her characters’ faces, Brandon-Croft hopes to counter oversexualized depictions of women in the media. 

“I just liked the idea of women being thought of and heard,” Brandon-Croft said. 

As a child, she never would have guessed she’d follow in her father’s footsteps as a cartoonist. 

“I was always told I could draw when I was a kid,” Brandon-Croft said. “My dad wanted me to help him, and I did. Who knew I was in training to be a cartoonist?”

Growing up, she was surrounded by her father’s art. “Seven Deadly Sins,” a piece currently on display as part of “STILL,” used to be on the walls of her dining room. She also credited her father’s artistry as having influenced her own. 

“I learned from my dad that you have to get things done quickly,” Brandon-Croft said. “You have to make your point in the amount of time somebody is willing to read it.” 

Brandon-Croft attended Syracuse University’s art program where she felt that people often undervalued her intelligence

“I feel like people thought, ‘Oh, Barbara. She draws. How did she get in here?’ I was like, I had to be smart too,” Brandon-Croft said.

She recalled receiving a card one Valentine’s Day that said, “You’re pretty smart for someone who’s not in the school of business.” 

Despite this, she looks back at her time in college with an appreciation for the skills it taught her. 

“There’s something about all being the same age, living in the same place, bouncing ideas off of each other, forming these bonds — all of that,” Brandon-Croft said. 

Ultimately, Brandon-Croft did not earn a degree during her time at Syracuse, yet feels she gained skills that helped her immensely. 

“What I got out of school was coming out of my shell,” Brandon-Croft said. “Socially, it helped me immensely.”

For current college students, she stressed the importance of finding a mentor. 

“People who are older know the deal. Especially the people on your own campus can really help you,” Brandon-Croft said.

During its time in the UC Davis Design Museum, Brandon-Croft hopes the exhibition “serves as an education” for college students. 

And it seems to be accomplishing just that. First-year political science and design double major, Temo Martinez, described the exhibit as “thought-provoking.” 

“The comics managed to be funny, while still discussing serious topics,” Martinez said. “The humor makes you realize how ridiculous it is that these issues have stayed topical for so long.” 

Brandon Nguyen, a first-year managerial economics major, agreed. 

“Even the comics from the ‘60s still feel relevant,” Nguyen said. 

Brandon-Croft also commented on the longevity of both her and her father’s work. 

“I hope it’s seen as an authentic look at history,” Brandon-Croft said. “It’s something that’s trying to be erased by so many people, and it has to stand. It has to be remembered.”

 

Written by: Laila Azhar — features@theaggie.org

 

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