Q&A: Artist Mark Steven Greenfield on Minstrelsy and American Culture
by Carolina A. Miranda
November 19, 2014 – Of all the uncomfortable episodes in American history, that of minstrelsy is one that many people would like to forget. It consisted largely of white performers dressed in black-face, employing exaggerated accents and outfits to mimic or degrade aspects of the African slave experience in the United States. The tradition got its start in the mid-1800s and remained a popular form of vernacular theater into the 1900s.
In fact, minstrelsy and black-face are ingrained in some of the most iconic American pop culture of the 20th century: from the 1927 talking picture “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, to myriad Warner Bros. cartoons aimed at children. (The University of South Florida has a worthwhile online history devoted to the form.)
It is a touchy topic — one that L.A. artist Mark Steven Greenfield has spent a good portion of his career tackling head-on, in work that is now on view at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
Over the years, he has manipulated old photographs of black-face performers into absurdist eye charts laced with hip-hop lyrics. And he’s taken the symbols of minstrelsy — top hats, woolen wigs, exaggerated lips — and abstracted them into playfully subversive geometric patterns.
Greenfield, 63, who has also served as a director of the Watts Towers Arts Center and the Los Angeles Municipal Art gallery, began his career with less controversial subject matter. And the show at CAAM, titled “Lookin’ Back in Front of Me: Selected works of Mark Steven Greenfield, 1974-2014,” features these other works, too: early abstractions that touch on the cosmic, and figurative works tinged by the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic.
The artist, based in Altadena, now makes art full time. Recently, he talked with me about how he got onto the topic of minstrelsy, what he’s learned from the process, and what his mother thought of it as a subject for his art.