Michael Dixon: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

(Michael Dixon's painting "I'm a Black Man in a White World." Photo by Andrew Willoughby.)

When artist Michael Dixon was around 5 years old, he found himself already equating race and color. He recalled the day he found out he was black after he made a race joke while eating red and purple popsicles with his sister and his cousins, associating the color red to Native Americans and the color purple to black people.

Although he lived in a diverse neighborhood, Dixon said he took being black as a “negative thing” due to the education system and his experiences while growing up. Race was something that “was never really talked about” in his family, and he labeled himself as white despite the fact that he was biracial.

Considering his biological father who was black was never in the picture and he never knew his black family, Dixon felt he missed out on his black experience and struggled with his identity throughout his life.

It wasn’t until Dixon took his first African American history course in college that he began to develop a black identity and self-identify as black, but because of his light complexion, people often would mistake him for other races and ethnicities. Dixon referred to these instances in which his identity was in question as his “Achilles’ heel.

“It’s like someone shanking me in my kidney. … There’s a lot of pain around it,” Dixon said.

As a result of this confusion, he started working closely with the concept of identity, creating pieces such as self portraitures that evoked questions about perceived identity, centering around the idea of how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

Dixon’s exhibition, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” on display from Oct. 1 through Oct. 26 in the Mazmanian Art Gallery, depicts black and biracial identity issues, blackness in America, the value of black bodies, and responds to acts of police violence seen on the news in the last few years such as the shootings of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and Trayvon Martin.

Yumi Park Huntington, assistant professor of art history, said she wanted to bring in an artist who exhibited racial identity issues in their work to generate a discussion not only in her African American art history class, but on campus as well. Huntington compared Dixon’s work to “the political and social issues our campus is dealing with.

“This phenomena that we are experiencing in the 21st century, 2018, is really similar to what was happening in the 1930s and ’20s before WWII. We definitely need to think about where we are going by looking at the past,” she said.

The exhibition is part of the Moon Landing in Context series, “Then, Now, and Beyond,” which discusses not only the moon landing, but the social issues and historical themes from the ’60s onward, including African American art and the development of black culture after the Civil Rights Movement.

Dixon’s self-portraitures in his series not only illustrate the perplexity behind his own identity, but also convey blackness in America historically and currently, including the psychological and physical oppression people of color still face today.

Huntington said, “I love the way he actually changed the concept of the double-consciousness into a contemporary version. … It’s talking about the broader area of biracial issues and the struggles expressed through all this dichotomy.”

Dixon said painting “is the way I communicate and process information. It’s natural for me to express myself this way. This is the most logical way of self-expression for me.”

Dixon’s work serves as a way to create a conversation about race, something that was never constructed for Dixon growing up. He incorporates images such as the Sambo Doll, a kids’ toy back in the 1900s that subjugated blackness by emasculating the black body as “this dehumanizing, animalistic image,” Dixon said.

While the Sambo Doll is no longer an acceptable image in American culture, the structures that have oppressed people of color are still currently in play, he said. Dixon evokes the image of the doll in his work to reference history.

“It’s an ugly image. … It creates tension that I’m exploiting to have this conversation,” he said.

Dixon said his favorite painting that came out of the series is “Mike Brown’s Body.” The painting depicts the Sambo Doll with its head snapped off from its body, hanging loosely by a thread.

“It’s disturbing and beautiful at the same time. This particular doll is a loaded image, so it has a historical baggage. It’s smiling, but it’s broken. It kind of almost references lynching. I like all of those things colliding together, and I think you find a narrative in those collisions. Things aren’t quite lining up,” he said.

FSU student Kierstyn Brady said Dixon’s pieces “look so realistic when you look at them from far away, but when you get up close, the passages of paint blend together. They’re loose and using color to differentiate, but the buildup of the paint on the surface is consistent throughout. It equates. He’s painting himself into these images and he’s also equating it to what he’s painting it with.”

While analyzing the painting “Mike Brown’s Body,” Brady said, “When you look at this doll, it is also painted in the same way as he paints himself. So, he doesn’t focus too much on one thing to make it more important. They’re both equal. They mirror each other.” 

Junior Hannah Nebitt added she likes the juxtaposition between the doll’s skin color and the artist’s skin color.

Another repeated image throughout Dixon’s work is masks. The masks depicted include a pig, an eagle, and a white mask all shown to represent the systems of oppression. Dixon said they’re covering up, changing, and hiding the face to portray the fact that the status quo is racist.

“If you are not actively working against that system of oppression, you’re benefiting. Therefore, you’re participating,” he said.

Dixon also likes to play with different kinds of backgrounds. He uses a light blue background in all of his paintings besides “Here’s Lookin’ at You Kid,” which is neutral gray in color.  He said both the light blue and gray backgrounds have the same job – to push the background back and make the warm-colored figure come forward.

“The background is kind of baby blue. It’s pleasing. It’s very inviting. But the content is a little more difficult. So what [the background] does is it brings you into the painting, but then as you start to absorb the content, it’s this collision of this kind of pleasing, inviting space with something that’s intense and tougher,” he said.

There are about 40 pieces in the series, Dixon said. Some of them illustrate blackface, which Dixon said acts as a metaphor for his existence and carries a lot of “historical weight,” provoking some resistance and criticism from his viewers.

“We have to talk about it honestly and openly and frequently and often and in safe spaces. … People think that if we don’t talk about it, it will go away, but I feel like we need to talk about it a lot more than we are,” Dixon said.

While at graduate school in Boulder, Colorado, Dixon said he saw a lot of racial tension. In order to produce a conversation about race, Dixon put up a painting in front of the university showcasing a multitude of racial stereotypes. The painting was his “most successful,” but for the wrong reason, he said.

The community thought it was a hate crime, took the piece down, and called the police, he said. Channel 4 News was called in response to an angry mob of people who gathered and Dixon was forced to hold a conference about his intentions. During the conference, Dixon noted that people began to tell their stories and speak their truths.

“It started to create some dialogue that needed to happen. … If my work is creating a conversation, I think it’s doing the work that needs to be done,” he said. “What is black? What is white? It’s a construct. It doesn’t exist. It’s a social construct. However, we all are entitled to identify how we want to identify. You can’t tell me what I am, and I can’t tell you what you are.”

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