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SERIOUSLY CUTE: Six Artists Harnessing the Power Dichotomy of Cuteness

"Los Angeles-based artist Alex Anderson, who is Black and Japanese, also uses blackface in his ceramic sculptures. This strategy is particularly poignant in his work when juxtaposed with predominantly white-glazed clay. He says, “I do not think of the use of this history as a reclamation, but more as the engagement of an imposed birthright…blackface imagery is a visual distillation of a majority perception of my identity, but it also represents how I feel when I enter any white space. An awareness of the assumed truth of Black stereotypes and the feeling of potentially confirming those stereotypes, as the white gaze immediately categorizes me with implicit bias.” This fear directly informs Pearanoia (2019), a phonetic play on “paranoia.” In this work, Anderson represents himself, and Black people generally, through a cutely rendered anthropomorphic pear. The black fruit features gold dots as eyes and the typical red mouth of blackface, twisted into a frown. (Though cuteness is often thought of as optimistic, in actuality it can convey the full range of human emotions, including sadness and anger, without losing its appeal.) The pear hangs, scared, a droplet of sweat on its forehead, while a realistically rendered anonymous white hand reaches towards it and white roses with eyes look on. It is a commentary on the fetishization, consumption and exploitation of Black bodies and ideas by white people—themes the artist often explores in his practice. “Blackface in my work is a reflection of the emotional truths of navigating a white world in a black body while framing the entire circumstance as an absurdity.”

The use of cuteness and humor in Anderson’s work presents a first line of defense that parallels the code-switching expected of BIPOC communities in the US. He also incorporates Emoji iconography—a universal language that simplifies messages with cute pictographs—which has been especially embraced by Millennials and Gen Z. Anderson harnesses cuteness to create empathy towards the Black American experience and “invite grace to a subject historically contextualized as abject and other.” These approaches serve as misdirection. The sculptures make you look, draw you in and then hit you with the charged imagery of blackface, which disrupts the comfort and safety that we expect cuteness to offer. Anderson labors to soften the blow and make complex narratives more digestible for his primarily white audience, while providing a platform for dialogue about race in the US."


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