Because the South, because Louisiana, because rural Tangipahoa Parish, because the fraught racial history of the South, and of Louisiana, and of rural Tangipahoa Parish, I am pretty much speechless that this is the poster for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival.
But here it is, going to a place Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima have never gone before. That place is Pickaninnyville.
According to a story in the Advocate, the south Louisiana daily newspaper, the creator of the poster drew upon the work of a late Ponchatoula artist known for his stylistic portrayals of rural blacks in the Deep South.
The festival board’s publicist Shelley Matherne told WBRZ that the painting for the poster was selected in an open contest in which two entries were submitted.WELL, THAT'S fair enough, and it would be pure knee-jerk speculation to say there was any malevolent intent on the part of the artist, Kalle Siekkinen, but I think it does show an abject cluelessness on the part of Siekkinen and festival organizers about the minefield that is race in the South.
“Art is subjective; there was no intent other than to pay tribute to the festival and the strawberry industry,” she said in a statement. “This is Kalle’s interpretation of a similar world-renowned local Ponchatoula artist, now deceased, who he drew his inspiration from.”
From what I can see of the late artist Bill Hemmerling's original work, the style of the poster is pitch-perfect in representing Hemmerling's style, but managed to hit all the wrong chords with the execution. It's rather like when Yosemite Sam tries to blow up Bugs Bunny with a booby-trapped piano.
Bugs hits the wrong note and lives. A frustrated Yosemite Sam, angrily showing Bugs how to correctly play the melody, hits the right note . . . and blows himself to bits.
WHO KNEW Yosemite Sam was from Ponchatoula?
I don't think it's the poster's use of African-American children is necessarily problematic, per se. It's just the little things in the artwork that turned it into something close to the perfect stereotype, and it's troubling that no one involved could see that. And that may well speak to deep-seated problems of culture and race that would merit a post unto itself . . . if not a very, very thick book.
If only the poster had depicted the kids in a different pose. If only the kids' skin wasn't absolutely, positively coal black -- which wasn't necessary to mimic a significant portion of Hemmerling's work. If only the little girl had a different hairstyle -- even just a little different, which might have been truer to Hemmerling's originals. If only the kids had been wearing hats, which would have been even truer to much of Hemmerling's paintings.
If only, if only, if only.
Even so, some folks still might have been offended. But it wouldn't have been so condescendingly, head-shakingly, "Holy crap!" stereotypical.
As it stands, the poster for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival only could have been worse if it were for the Ponchatoula Watermelon Festival.
It says nothing good for Louisiana, or for the state of racial understanding in the South, that one is rather relieved that Ponchatoula doesn't have a watermelon festival.