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“Some have labelled my particular style as social protest, but I beg to differ. If I would label my work at all, it would be called social reality.” —Cleveland Bellow

Black artist Cleveland Bellow's picture of a black man
Cleveland Bellow, Duke, 1968. Image Credit: Brooklyn Museum

The hardest part of this series is coming across an artist where limited biographical information exists.

Bay area artist and printmaker Cleveland Bellow showed work in over 60 shows throughout his career and taught art in addition to his civic engagement as Alameda County’s Art Commissioner. Bellow passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2009, and unfortunately catalogues and oral histories of his career and practice are difficult to come by online.

In 1970 the Oakland Museum and the Foster-Kleiser Billboard Company offered artist Cleveland Bellow the opportunity to depict a glimpse of the social reality on a public scale like never before, as part of the trend of public Black art sweeping the Nation.

He then reproduced on this billboard-scale the print of a young boy (Unitled) who holds his hands behind his head, with an undefined facial expression.

Balck artist Cleveland Bellow's work of a young black boy
Cleveland Bellow, Untitled, 1968. Image Credit: Brooklyn Museum

The most intriguing aspect is that Bellow never explained what is the very meaning of this image, leaving it open to different interpretations: is the boy smiling in joy or is he displaying a concerned and scared act of surrender? And if so, towards whom?

The many events that dotted the history of the tormented social integration of the African-American community could easily suggest a connection between so many tragic episodes and the figure's raised hands. But it’s this very ambiguity that gives these billboards their power and – as art has done so many times along human history – allows the viewers to raise the most meaningful questions, doubts and interpretation regarding the society in which they are living. And to be hopeful.

Art mysteries like this are reminders that there’s much work to be done to preserve the legacies of those whose work influenced future generations of artists. There are many, many more stories to tell. Onward.

“Hands up, don’t shoot.”

The phrase became popular after the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Contemporary viewers may draw a connection between this tragic event and the billboard figure’s raised hands, as it speaks to the long history of violence by police toward communities of colour, especially against young Black men.

Cleveland Bellow photographed standing under his billboard of a young black boy
Cleveland Bellow photographed standing under his billboard, Oakland Post Photograph Collection, MS 169, African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library

How does this historical context add potential meaning to the social reality Bellow portrayed?

Were these billboards a coded message about police violence and racial injustice or does this work hold a different meaning?

Although the ambiguity of Bellow‘s billboards makes it impossible to be sure of their meaning, it’s this very ambiguity that gives these billboards their power. It raises questions for viewers, allowing them to find their own interpretation.

What does Bellow’s work mean to you?

Article by

Fabio Amati


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