Orange Is The New Black: Exploring the History of Racism in America with Knowledge Bennett

Written by Marley C. Smit

America’s fraught relationship with its black communities has been the cause of significant civil unrest throughout the country’s history. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the killing of several unarmed black people by Police and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan are only two of countless examples showcasing how systematic racism is still alive and well in America today. It is this troubled relationship that Pop Artist Knowledge Bennett has chosen to address for his newest solo show, “Orange is the New Black.”

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“Orange is the New Black,” currently on view at Joseph Gross Gallery, is Knowledge Bennett’s first solo exhibition in New York City. The title of the show draws viewers in by referencing the widely known Netflix series by the same name. Yet, while the title of the hit Netflix show alludes to trendy character Piper Chapman’s adjustment from wearing little black dresses to prison jumpsuits, Bennett’s use of the title instead refers to the racism embedded in the American prison industrial complex. The walls of the gallery are flanked with massive stretched canvases all painted with a bright shade of orange that instantly recalls a prison uniform. Images including civil rights leaders and newspaper clippings exposing race-related corruption are silkscreened onto the loud background entirely in black. This bold body of work forces its viewer to confront America’s past and present of institutional racism and disenfranchisement.

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In a recent interview, Knowledge Bennett revealed his process for choosing figures to incorporate into his images and how the medium and history of Pop Art contributes to the message he aims to project. Bennett sees Pop Art as a means of relaying messages about current events through the pre-existing symbols of pop culture. The L.A. based artist likes to appropriate recognizable characters from history into his artwork in order to give his audience a familiar cultural reference point with which they can approach his work. However, while Andy Warhol used Pop Art to explore the celebrity culture of the 60s, Bennett uses this genre “for the purpose of painting a portrait of America.”

“Orange is the New Black” is an effective crash course in America’s history of perpetuating the oppression of its black citizens. The familiar title and bold color contrast attracts audiences, but the pleasing aesthetic and cleverly appropriated title are quickly dwarfed by the harsh realities about American racism revealed through the content of the work. “I hope people walk away with a fundamental grasp of systematic disenfranchisement and institutional racism,” says Bennett. The exhibition will be on view at Joseph Gross Gallery, NYC until December 3rd, 2016.

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