Art and Justice | African American artists – “the true historians of our culture”


Jonathon Romain works on a painting of one of his friends reading to his son. Romain said, “Society has done a horrible job painting a picture of Black America.” (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Jonathon Romain sees the world with a clarity that stems from his unique perspective.

“I started going to jail before I was 10 years old. I remember vividly the first time I was handcuffed and tossed into a squad car. I wasn’t even 13,” Romain said in his opening remarks at the inaugural fundraiser for ART INC. in 2019.

Today, Romain is co-founder with his wife Nikki of ART INC. and The Romain Arts & Culture Community Center, 919 NE Jefferson, site of the former Greeley School.

Romain is an accomplished artist with works in museums and collections nationwide.

“I try to depict elements of the world around me,” he said. “It is my mirror on the world.”

Speaking to a group of African American artists recently Romain said, “We are the true historians of our culture.”

His paintings often depict love, family and triumphs achieved through education and excellence.

“The reality is society has done a horrible job painting a picture of Black America. There are negative images on the news, on TV and on the radio,” he said.

“If we gather all those negative images up, they fill the planet with negative stereotypes, and that becomes omnipresent in society.”

Unfortunately, those negative images become a self-fulfilling prophesy for many African American youth.

Art can help people see the world as it really is, but Romain believes to achieve change, art must work in concert with other factors and needs to be seen and understood by people who honestly want to see the world as it is, not as an ideological stereotype.

Some people don’t want to see reality, he said, retelling an allegory by Plato about people who were forced to live in a cave and only saw the outside world through reflections that distorted reality. One person escaped and saw the world as it really was. He went back to the cave and tried to convince others to leave but they refused, preferring to remain in their familiar world.

“The challenge in the world today is how to break through bigotry and racial stereotypes,” he said. “Look at humanity today. I want to be optimistic and hopeful but the sad reality is we are not guaranteed victory if we blindly go about our business.”

Romain is concerned about global climate change. His son recently wrote a successful grant application for a solar installation on The Romain Arts & Culture Community Center that will make the center energy independent.

But Romain is concerned when billion-dollar corporations drown out the voices of scientists warning about climate change.

“Corporations are drowning out the voices of all the righteous and moral people to the point that their warnings, their scientific studies can’t be heard. Only the bogus corporate studies are heard,” he said.

The Romain Arts & Culture Community Center “seeks to be fiscally responsible, socially responsible and environmentally responsible.”

The physiological and psychological heritage of slavery has lingered on African Americans and on a society where subjugation and racism have not been eliminated but merely evolved from overt to covert.

Romain, 54, said art and imagery alone can’t tip the scale toward justice. It must be in concert with activism and intentionality.

“Look at society today and you’d think those images of Rodney King never existed; you’d think Trayvon Martin had never been killed. The image of Emmett Till, the images of men and women hung, castrated, burned and beaten. These images can elicit emotion but emotions alone are not enough to make change. We need policy changes,” he said.

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