BHM Celebration of Art and Poetry: Michael Ray Charles: Lifesaball

This month, 606 is honoring Black History by sharing art and poetry by black artists and poets. We’ve invited artists, art historians, curators, archivists, literary scholars, poets, and others with expertise in art and poetry to share their favorite pieces of art and poems by black artists around the globe. If you find your life enriched by this blog series, say “thank you” by buying art from a black artist and poetry by black artists, visiting a museum, asking your local art museum to include more black artists, donating to an art scholarship for students of color, asking your library to stock more books on black art and by black poets, dropping off some art supplies at your local community center or daycare or senior center, or donating art by artists of color to your local school, community center, or house of worship. 

Today, we thank our last contributor to this series, Dr. Wanda B. Knight, for her insights into the work of Michael Ray Charles. We are so grateful for her insights into this piece, which have implications for our current discussions of blackface and, just this week, the use of stereotypes in films like Green Book.

And if you learned something useful or discovered something beautiful in this series, let us know at Sixoh6.



Michael Ray Charles is an internationally-acclaimed, United States, contemporary artist. His extraordinary body of work re/presents past history and present-day realities of derogatory, stereotypical images of African Americans that pervade contemporary US culture. These demeaning images dwell slightly beneath the surface in sports, advertising, TV sitcoms, and other popular mass-media. Charles uses highly stylized paintings of mammies, sambos, and pickaninnies to dig beneath the surface of US visual culture, in an attempt to expose these historicized images of ridicule and reverse them to critique those who have created, maintained, and perpetuated such demeaning and hostile images of Black people.

Born in 1967 in Lafayette, Louisiana, Charles earned a bachelor’s degree from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA in 1989 and gained a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Houston Texas in 1993, where he serves currently as a Distinguished Professor of Painting and a senior member of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences faculty.

Charles lectures and displays his work in solo and group exhibitions in national and international venues. Also, numerous public and private collections around the world house his work (including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, to name a few). Likewise, a plethora of visual and print media (books, magazines, and newspapers) continue to document his work.

Michael Ray Charles’s paintings employ caricature, satire, and social critique to challenge and confront the United States visual culture. Having studied design and advertising in college, Charles juxtaposes words, letters, and images to create a body of work that interrogates the encoding, packaging, selling, and transmission of information through images designed to tell and sell lies. These so-called “lies” include fictitious promises of freedom made to African Americans by the United States and the consumer market through false advertising.

To show connections between the past and the present, Charles takes historical, Black stereotypical characters and reinterprets them within contemporary contexts. For example, the image of “Sambo” is one caricature that Charles often critiques in his current paintings. As characterized by United States slaveholders in the South, Sambo was the typical, watermelon eating, plantation slave (Harris,2003). Enslavers considered Sambo to be passive, lazy, and irresponsible; and though humble and loyal, he was childish and prone to lying and stealing.

Visual re/presentations of Black men as the Sambo became classic in US visual culture. One of the earliest works of art to use physiognomical distortions as a necessary feature to visually depict Blacks men as Sambo is allegedly John Lewis Krimmel’s 1813 painting, Quilting Frolics. In this work, a jet-black, oversized red-lipped, shabbily dressed fiddler (with a seeming liquor bottle protruding from his coat pocket) happily entertains a group of White spectators in a Pennsylvania German house, in the company of a bystander Black servant girl. This painting “marked the beginning of the near-constant association of Blacks with music and music-making in the fine arts” (Knight, 2019; McElroy, 1990, p. 14).

Widespread stereotypes and images of the light-hearted, dancing and singing Sambo character, from the Antebellum South, had a powerful influence on the politics of slavery. Being inundated continually with pictures of happy slaves gave White people the impression that the Plantation was an ideal residence, where human captives were content and willing to serve. For many United States Citizens, both in the North and South, the Sambo myth put an end to both the moral and political conflict associated with institutionalized human enslavement in a free society, based on democratic ideals.

As a college basketball player, Michael Ray Charles is quick to criticize African Americans for embracing White created racial stereotypes in the sports world, which he perceives to be another minstrel show, in which Black people play and White people watch. Consider the “Sambo’ caricature represented in Michael Ray Charles’s work Lifesaball.


Lifesaball (Forever Free), 1995

Acrylic latex, oil wash, and copper penny on paper, 6O”x36″

In this satire on National Basketball Association (NBA) players, Charles associates Blacks with Sambos, criticizing them for buying into stereotypes and enacting stereotypical behaviors. In this reinterpreted stereotype, the basketball has replaced the watermelon, reinforcing the notion held by numerous people in the United States that Blackness is linked to sports and entertainment, not intellectualism. Having joined the basketball team in college may have influenced Charles’s regular comparison of athletes and black stereotypes in his paintings.

As an African American artist, Charles’s aggressive use of traditional stereotypes of his race keeps him at the center of controversy, particularly given the fact that White people are the primary buyers of works that reflect the United States history of White dominance in light of Black peoples ongoing struggle for equity and social justice. There is, conceivably, as much debate regarding stereotypes when those of the same racial group re/produce them as there is when those of a different racial group re/produce them. Even so, Charles’s multi-layered and politically charged paintings beseech contemplation and reflexivity. Does Charles’s work reinforced racial stereotypes or does his work call them into question? According to Charles, “there is a fine line between questioning something and perpetuating something.” If artists are not members of the groups they are depicting, what qualifies these artists to deal with racial stereotypes? Does the revival of negative stereotypes reinscribe their possible damaging effects or do these stereotypes cause harm anew?

Michael Ray Charles’s work provokes and provides pedagogical opportunities for critical discussion and reflection. A brief analysis of the implications for using Charles’s work within educational contexts would suggest that school-age youth, as well as others, might benefit from discussions that confront issues related to the human condition that contemporary art and artists might illuminate (Knight, 2006).

Moreover, Charles’s work can help to deconstruct the long-held master narrative of Black racial inferiority and to create conditions for new knowledge founded in African American studies that recognize the human potential, possibility, and humanity of Black people. Additionally, Charles’s work has implications for teaching that might lead to more equitable outcomes for underserved children and youth in various teaching and learning contexts.

Rather than shunning perceived difficult topics that Charles’s work might evoke, educators of all sorts can become more politically astute by using such images to examine negative stereotypes used throughout US history. They can: 1) analyze why the images and texts are so powerful or useful in evoking feelings of fear, anger, and loathing, 2) think critically about the imagery and narratives, 3) look at the color choices, symbolism, language, and design elements. 4) discuss slavery, the problematic history of racism in the United States and how it has led to the inequalities that continue to pervade United States Societies (Knight 2019).

The question, then, is whether to use or reject contemporary art that brings to our attention uncomfortable and even taboo issues that exist today.


Harris, M. (2003). Colored pictures: Race and visual representation. Chapel Hill. NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Knight, W. B. (2019) Black image and identity in United States Curriculum. Cultures of Curriculum. In K. Freedman (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Art and Design Education, volume 2. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publisher.

Knight, W. B. (2006). Using contemporary art to challenge cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions. Art Education, 59(4), 39-45.

McElroy, G. (1990) Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710–1940. San Francisco: Bedford Arts.

About the Author:

WBKWanda B. Knight, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Art Education, African American Studies, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and is Professor-in-Charge of the Art Education Program at Penn State University. She currently chairs the National Art Education Association Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and has served as a Pre-K-12 art teacher, registrar and curator of an art museum, and principal of both elementary and secondary schools. For more information go to:


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