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An Homage to Dark Humor


The term “dark humor” was coined in 1935 to describe a sub-genre of comedy in which pleasure arises from topics generally considered taboo. In recent years, many artists of African descent have deployed dark humor to question history, matters of identity, viewer expectations and the currency of cultural and racial stereotypes. “Dark Humor: African American Art from the University Museums, University of Delaware,” on view at the Delaware Art Museum from July 16–Sept. 25, features 19 paintings, prints and objects produced between 1970 and 2008 by 18 artists, including Camille Billops, David Hammons, Barkley Hendricks and Peter Williams, a professor of art at the University of Delaware. The exhibition presents work by artists who employ subversive humor to question the currency of cultural and racial stereotypes.

“Dark Humor” was drawn from the University Museums’ African American art collection at the University of Delaware and the Delaware Art Museum’s contemporary art collection by Tiffany Barber, the Delaware Art Museum’s 2015 Alfred Appel Jr. Curatorial Fellow. Barber chose works by artists of African descent that emphasize connections between humor, agency and the political efficacy of contemporary art at the turn of the 21st century.

“Since the early 20th century, black artists have frequently been called to ‘represent’ in racial terms—to produce reverent, positive images of blackness in order to counteract the experience of slavery and racism,” says Barber. “By using dark humor, present-day black artists shake off this call. By employing satire, visual puns, farce, absurdity, kitsch and the bizarre, the artists included in the exhibition upend social and aesthetic conventions.”

“Dark Humor” is rich with references to figures and tropes drawn from black history and folklore. Many of the works on view are overtly political, graphic and punchy, while others are more nuanced and playful. Taken together, the works in “Dark Humor” bridge contemporary concerns with historical legacies to offer a meditation on race relations in the United States and the role of dark humor in avant-garde art practices. The museum is partnering with the University Museums of the University of Delaware, to present a film, an artists’ panel and a gallery talk by Tiffany Barber at the Delaware Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition.

For more information, visit www.delart.org.

“Absolutely Hilarious” (1997) by Peter Williams

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