It would be indelicate to call Sandra Bland -- a woman found hung in jail shortly after a traffic stop in Texas -- the “inspiration” for Washington D.C.-based painter Charles Philippe Jean Pierre’s new exhibition “The Feminist,” but the mysterious and controversial hours leading up to Bland’s death had a profound impact on the artist, and prompted his subsequent exploration of race, gender, feminism, and equality.
When Jean Pierre heard the news about Bland on a summer day in 2015, he called Jovan C. Speller, a colleague and the new curator at Public Functionary. “He was distraught and really pissed off,” Speller recalls. “I had never heard him like that before. He started talking about what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be a strong man. He didn’t quite understand how men could rise up against each other for things like shoes or territory or women or money and essentially kill each other over trivial things like that but they could not rise up together as a unit and fight for their sisters, their mothers, their daughters. It just tore him up.”
Jean Pierre felt compelled to learn more about the experiences of his female friends and family members, as well as the broader issues of feminism and masculinity in American society. He devoured books and interviewed loved ones, a learning process he translated onto canvases and into sound installations, all on display at Public Functionary beginning this Friday.
“I think originally the idea was to understand male culture, female culture, and to figure out how to be a better man. That’s how it started. It wasn’t really about the artwork,” says Speller. “As a heterosexual black man, to call yourself a feminist in contemporary society, it’s kind of something that’s still being explored. It’s new. This exhibition is his education in how women talk about themselves, understanding female experiences through literature.”
We asked Jean Pierre about his feminist journey and the major themes in his work.
City Pages: How do you feel about the label “male feminist”? Do you agree or disagree with those who believe men can be “pro-feminist” but cannot be feminists themselves because men cannot “remove” their power and privilege in a patriarchal society?
Charles Philippe Jean Pierre: I think it’s difficult for men to remove their power and privilege globally. I embrace radical humanism. I’ve learned that it is not about titles, but about the honest effort to remove a social political system that insists males are inherently superior to everything and everyone [else is] deemed weak through the use of psychological terrorism and violence.
CP: How did the family environment and/or the geographical environment you grew up in influence your ideas of masculinity? How have those origins influenced your development as an artist?
CPJP: I’m Haitian-American; I grew up in a two-parent immigrant household. Both my parents grew up in a developing country, which afforded them comfortable lifestyles. I was raised by a very strong independent woman and extremely compassionate, hard-working father. The Caribbean work ethic was the epitome of masculinity in my household. Leisure time did not exist in our home, and it forced me to take art seriously at a very young age.
CP: The press release for “The Feminist” mentions “a visual documentation of a shift in thinking.” How has your thinking shifted over the course of working on the art in “The Feminist”?
CPJP: I would say my thinking blossomed. I read over 30 books written by women or about women over the last 12 months. I read everything from fictional novels written by notable African American women to history books written by white men on the origins of modern medicine in the United States and everything in between. I think the biggest shift in thought was going from thinking men should respect women because they are our daughters, sisters, and wives to we should love women because they are human beings.
CP: What feminist texts, theories, or scholars informed your understanding of feminism? How are they represented in this body of work?
CPJP: There is a long list of text that I referenced for the creation of this exhibition, but the one that has had the greatest impact on this body of work is bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. In the book she says, as in the case of alchemy, which transforms lead into true gold, when given the opportunity to burn, to be touched by an inner fire, men can live a life of substance and can be changed utterly. I use her definition of patriarchy, and agree that the reason men are so malevolent is that we know deep in ourselves that we are acting out a lie and are furious at being caught up in the lie.
Anger is the best hiding place for anybody that is seeking to conceal pain or anguish of spirit. Many of us are in rage because in some deep part of ourselves we want to be delivered from our emotional stoicism and are homesick for the truth.
CP: Beauty and power are both themes in your work. Where does that juxtaposition come from?
CPJP: I think men, as a whole, intrinsically want to dominate beauty. I think women, as a whole, are beautiful. I create beautiful works of art and I tend to force it. Over the last year I’ve tried let go and dominate less. I trusted my nurturing side and attempted organically create pieces that spoke not only theoretically to the feminists but in practice.
CP: What do you hope viewers take away from the exhibition?
CPJP: I would like viewers to recognize that dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together. We will be able to dismantle this system once we acknowledge its impact on all of our lives.
IF YOU GO:
Charles Philippe Jean Pierre: “The Feminist”
There will be an opening reception on Friday, November 18, from 7 p.m. to midnight.
Free; all ages