Walking in the Footsteps of Family
Teaching Narrative Change Through the Work of Gordon Parks
Robin Hickman-Winfield and Kedar Hickman are artists in their own right, leveraging creativity in their lives and professions to steer narrative change. They come from a long line of artists who have used their talents for social change; one happens to be their great-uncle, Gordon Parks, whose work is now on exhibit at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (the M).
Curated by Robin, “A Choice of Weapons, Honor and Dignity: The Visions of Gordon Parks and Jamel Shabazz” is a love letter to the late visionary artist. Parks was a photographer, author, filmmaker and composer who spent most of his teenage and early adult life in Saint Paul. He viewed photography as his “weapon” to combat poverty and racism, and went on to be the first black staff photographer for Life magazine and the first African American to write and direct a major Hollywood film.
With a mix of work by Parks and photographer Jamel Shabazz, the M’s exhibit takes one on a visual exploration of black culture. To carry visitors through the experience are four powerful themes: dignity, honor, hope and love.
“I've been around folks who had cameras hanging on their necks my whole life,” said Kedar, who refers to photography as writing with light. “I think we were nurtured and developed in that spirit of being artistic, not just in our household, but also in the community.”
Creatively Changing the Narrative
Caring for their community is something Kedar, a program officer for the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, and his sister Robin take seriously. Before passing in 2006, Parks asked Robin to promise to look out for young black men. The exhibit highlighting Parks is just one of the ways she is using art to uphold his legacy and his wishes, challenge negative narratives about young black men in our community.
“We’re not creating new narratives, we’re creating active narratives,” said Robin. “If I don’t see that I’m great, or hear that I’m great, it's hard to be great or be inspired to do great things.”
Robin is also part of the New Narrative Project, an initiative funded by the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation in an effort to dismantle problematic racial bias and narratives that are often portrayed in the media. Through the work of Parks, she inspires youth to use words and photographs to tell their stories and truths. This is something both Robin and her brother learned from their great-uncle Gordon.
“He had these different molds of sharing himself with the world,” said Kedar. “Not just in a large sense, but also being a black man. He wasn’t afraid to be a black man in a world and time when there weren’t a whole lot of black men doing what he did.”
“ We’re not creating new narratives, we’re creating active narratives. If I don’t see that I’m great, or hear that I’m great, it's hard to be great or be inspired to do great things.”
Exhibit Helps Students Write Their Own Stories
To help shape the narrative of “A Choice of Weapons,” Robin had students from Gordon Parks High School share their thoughts on what was being portrayed in the images throughout the exhibit.
“I'm never in doubt about bringing young people into the process,” said Robin. “I prepare the young people in my life for extraordinary opportunities. If I'm experiencing the extraordinary, they're going to experience the extraordinary.”
For Robin and Kedar, the only way people of color can combat stereotypes and false narratives portrayed in the media and other avenues is to focus on writing new ones.
“We are not the exception, we are the rule,” said Kedar. “It’s up to us within the community to claim that narrative back, to claim our own narrative and then rewrite our own stories and listen to our own stories.”
The exhibit is an example of writing those stories. The images Robin chose to display are more than just a combination of photographs from Parks and Shabazz, they’re the lives of these artists, who were able to find ways to shine light on even the darkest of places.
“A few years ago one of my ‘Choice of Weapons’ fellows asked me, ‘If your uncle were to ask you today what’s going to happen to black boys?’ what would you tell them?” said Robin. “I just smile, and say ‘Uncle Gordon, they are going to walk in your footsteps.”
“A Choice of Weapons, Honor and Dignity” is on display at the M until April 19, 2020. In addition to the work on display in the exhibit, you can also see photos from local photographer Den-Zell Gillard. During its run, there are a series of events, classes and tours open to the public. Visit mmaa.org to learn more. Be on the lookout for more additions to the exhibit coming soon.