Artist Charlotta Janssen Pays Homage to ‘Freedom Riders’ in New Exhibit

Charlotta Janssen’s portrait of Freedom Rider Cordell Reagon

Far off from the public eye, the Brooklyn Navy Yard looms over the Brooklyn waterfront, quiet and unassuming as a warehouse. From its outside, you’d never guess this industrial landmass serves as a safe haven for businesspeople, photographers, media, and artists alike.

On a cool August morning, someone from the latter category stands right before the entrance. Clad in a green worksuit with blue and white splotches, Charlotta Janssen looks more like a hired house painter than a creative one. That perception changes once you enter her studio on the 8thfloor and give your head the 360 degree treatment.

To your immediate left hangs pictures of a naked couple presumably after sexual intercourse, to the right, a man with a half-smile, half-scowl on his face.

The main part of the room, however, is where your eyes stay focused: A picture of young Black children at a 1920s Harlem pool lines the upper right (in tribute to Harlem Renaissance man James Van Der Zee). A side painting of Trinidadian activist  Stokely Carmichael lies mere feet away. Civil rights staples Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks sit nearby with stern looks at the camera.

These three paintings make up part of Jennsen’s “Freedom Riders” exhibit. Currently on display at Philadelphia’s African-American Museum through September 30th, the collection of oil canvas mugshots of those who participated in the 20th century Freedom Bus Rides for integrated public transit is juxtaposed with ID cards, secretly handwritten notes, and any other written documents Janssen could find.

An election inspires an artist

“Around the time of [President Barack] Obama’s election, there was so much joy in my neighborhood, a very multicultural neighborhood in Brooklyn,” Jennsen said about her inspiration to undergo the project. “I needed to put it into something.”

To find that “something,” she turned to a popular problem-solving place these days: the Internet. “I was googling and I found mugshots. The first thing I found was a set of mugshots. ‘One Day In Montgomery’ in 1956 and ‘One Day’ in 1961. And it felt like a real study of a moment and not just a portrait of a person, but a portrait of a moment that I could make artwork around.”

So Jennsen set out to pay tribute, creating a small set of paintings honoring the Montgomery Bus Boycotters of 1955-56 and the Freedom Riders of 1961 and placing them in her Brooklyn restaurant.

“The reaction was very powerful, stronger than anything else I’ve done before.”

The Maine-born artist soon realized she would get greater perspective by heading down south to find an actual Freedom Rider…

Read more: NewsOne

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