Viewing Murry DePillars's drawings and prints from the 1960s, I thought I understood them as expressions of African-American rage. How else to take the powerful Aunt Jemima, her arm busting out of the pancake box, wielding her spatula like a weapon? But the artist sees it differently. "When I first did Aunt Jemimia, people responded that I was angry and so forth, but when they met me they couldn't see it. During the 60s I didn't wear a dashiki; I was very calm like I am now," DePillars says.
He chose Aunt Jemima not only for her race but for her gender. "On television women had to play the role of airhead, as if they didn't have a brain. I used the black woman as emblematic of the condition of women."
Not that DePillars had no causes for anger. A Chicago native who has recently returned after two decades in Richmond--he's now executive vice president and professor of art and design at Chicago State University--he recalls becoming interested in architecture after his elementary school counselors didn't encourage his interest in becoming a doctor. And he excelled. At Crane High School in the late 50s, after less than a semester of mechanical drawing, "the teacher explained to my mother and the assistant principal that he couldn't teach me any more, that I needed to be in architecture." But he couldn't get into the class. "After being very persistent I was simply told there was a racial quota. And there were empty desks."
But this rejection brought him to Anna Robinson's art class. "She introduced me to African art and encouraged me to expand my aesthetic. She gave me a little corner in the room and let me work."
I saw the 1969 drawing Aunt Jemima Straightening Daughter's Hair, in which the daughter stands on a copy of a congressional report about the FBI's infiltration of many organizations, as a protest against hair-straightening. But DePillars says he was trying to show how black parents prepare their children for the world. "As long as the daughter appeared to be what society expected no one could control her thoughts. It's crystal clear in that report that they had people typed by dress, by people that they associated with. If you had a navy pea coat on and black pants and a black shirt in that period you automatically became a Black Panther. If you had a long Afro and a dashiki and stood on a corner talking loudly about Frantz Fanon you had to be a nationalist."
As a child growing up in Chicago DePillars noticed that conservative attire "could get me through a white neighborhood safely"--clothes became a passport. Aunt Jemima's trying to protect the life of her daughter. You don't have to dress a part, you live a part. What you believed in and how you acted it out, that was what was important to me."
DePillars, who praises the art training he received at several colleges and universities, nonetheless noticed certain biases. A student at Roosevelt when he did his Aunt Jemima drawings, he didn't show them to his instructors, who were all white. "I had a suspicion about how they would go over," he says. "I would do the kind of work that I thought my instructors wanted for classroom purposes and to keep my scholarship." he considered work he did at home his "personal work." He also noticed that standard art histories slighted art he found key--the work of African-Americans, Africans, and such Mexican muralists as Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco.
DePillars's recent paintings include silhouettes, some of an ancient African queen, set against geometrical patterns of boldly contrasting colors. Trips to Zimbabwe and Malaysia provided part of the inspiration: "You're right on the equator; I became aware that I was seeing color differently. It's exciting to me place a magenta next to a cadmium red and see what happens. The magenta becomes pink, and the cadmium red becomes orange." He also draws inspiration from music; the fields of dots in many paintings are inspired by moments when one or more players in a jazz quartet takes a brief break while others, still playing, "fill that space so the composition continues to flow." The dots are an attempt to "create the illusion of the space of music."
The exhibition "Celebration: The Homecoming of Murry DePillars" is at Satori Fine Art, 230 W. Superior, through June 30. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 6, and Saturday and Sunday, 11 to 5. For more information call 751-1883.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Murry DePillars by J.B. Spector.