‘Dark Humor’ by African-American Artists at Delaware Art Museum

Barkley L. Hendricks (born 1945), “Sacrifice of the Watermelon Virgin or Shirt Off Her Back,” 1987. Color offset lithograph, 21 5/8 × 30 inches. Lent by University Museums, University of Delaware, Paul R. Jones Collection, A Gift of the Brandywine Workshop, Philadelphia, PA. Image © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The term “dark humor” was coined in 1935 to describe a subgenre of comedy in which pleasure arises from topics generally considered taboo. Dark Humor: African American Art from the University Museums, University of Delaware presents works that employ subversive humor to question cultural and racial stereotypes. The exhibition, at the Delaware Art Museum from July 16 – September 25, 2016, features 19 paintings, prints, and objects produced between 1970 and 2008 by 18 artists, including Camille Billops, David Hammons, Barkley Hendricks, and Peter Williams.

Dark Humor was drawn from University of Delaware and Delaware Art Museum collections by Tiffany Barber, the Museum’s 2015 Alfred Appel Jr. Curatorial Fellow and a PhD candidate at the University of Rochester.

“Since the early 20th century, black artists have frequently been called to ‘represent’ in racial terms—to produce reverent, positive images of blackness in order to counteract the experience of slavery and racism,” says Barber. “By using dark humor, present-day black artists shake off this call. By employing satire, visual puns, farce, absurdity, kitsch, and the bizarre, the artists included in the exhibition upend social and aesthetic conventions.”

Dark Humor is rich with references to figures and tropes from black history and folklore. Many works are overtly political, graphic, and punchy, while others are more nuanced and playful. Taken together, the works offer a meditation on race relations in the United States and the role of dark humor in avant-garde art practices.

Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, DE 19806
Admission is free Thursdays 4–8pm. and Sundays 10am–4pm.

Founded in 1912, the Delaware Art Museum is best known for its works by Wilmington native Howard Pyle and fellow American illustrators, British Pre-Raphaelite art, landscapes by John Sloan and his circle, a survey of American art from early 19th century through the present, and the largest outdoor Copeland Sculpture Garden in Delaware.