Detroit artist Jonathan Harris strikes a nerve around the world with ‘Critical Race Theory’ painting

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Detroit artist Jonathan Harris has gone viral with his "Critical Race Theory" painting. - TAFARI STEVENSON-HOWARD
  • Tafari Stevenson-Howard
  • Detroit artist Jonathan Harris has gone viral with his "Critical Race Theory" painting.

For the past six months emerging Detroit artist and curator Jonathan Harris had been preparing new work for a solo exhibition at Irwin House Gallery. Entitled TRIPTYCH: Stronger Together, the exhibition was curated by Harris, ran throughout the month of November, and included two other emerging artists – Crystal Starks-Webb and Terrell Anglin. An arrangement of staggering talent, exuberant color, and poignant personal and historical messages, TRIPTYCH was covered by PBS’ One Detroit, PBS’ American Black Journal, Michigan Chronicle; art from the exhibit also recently appeared on CBS 62’s Eye on Detroit and Harris was featured in the Oakland Post. Although many works in the exhibit delivered powerful missives, Harris’ 24” x 36” oil painting, entitled “Critical Race Theory,” is the bomb that quietly emerged and detonated around the world.

Named in response to the raging national argument on race teachings, Harris’ “Critical Race Theory” depicts a non-specific white male rolling over images of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X with opaque white paint, in a gesture that boldly and beautifully communicates the white-washing of Black history. While many artworks from TRIPTYCH have continued to appear in the media and on social platforms since the start, when Harris posted his “Critical Race Theory” toward the end of November, it took a swift, fiery, and continuing trip around the world — sparking conversation, support, and even infuriation across at least four platforms including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

The painting’s viral journey began when The Other 98%, a non-profit focusing on social justice, posted the image before their 6.5 million followers; Black Lives Matter OKC picked it up and garnered thousands more hits and shares; and interest groups and the general public, from around the world, are continuing to share, follow, and passionately respond to the painting. At this point, it feels like almost everyone owning a device has seen and remarked on the work of this homegrown Detroit artist.

Born and raised in the heart of Detroit, Harris attended the Detroit School for the Fine and Performing Arts, Henry Ford Community College, and Oakland University, where he majored in graphic design and minored in studio art. The artist has only been painting, seriously, for a little more than a year, and delved more into his artistry during the pandemic — when he took a leap to quit his job to devote himself full-time to the arts. In that short period of time, he has evolved from drawing and painting celebrities to using his platform to bring awareness to social and world issues and instill pride into the Black community.

Moved by the viral reaction to his painting, Harris shared that he had been deeply disturbed by all the news surrounding critical race theory being taught in schools. “There have already been schools removing race teachings, even as the debate goes on,” he says. “I believe that removing teachings about this country’s history and race is a beast that will never be full. If you allow some to be removed, they will want to remove more and more… eventually, even prominent historical figures like Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X might be removed altogether.”

Describing the painting, Harris adds, “The road in the background represents the road that African Americans have had to travel just to get this far, only to have our histories — our stories — potentially erased.” The artist fears that the CRT argument bodes poorly for the future and opens the door for history to repeat itself. The painting has struck a nerve with viewers who share similar concerns, and even garnered opposing responses from MAGA platforms. Its message, both formidable and timely, helps demonstrate the impact and value of art in fueling and anchoring thought and dialogue.

The painting has been acquired by a Detroit collector, who prefers to remain anonymous at this time. She remarked that the piece “spoke to her immediately” when she saw it online and at the gallery last month. “This is the perfect example of a picture being worth a thousand words,” the collector added. “I appreciate the opportunity to be a caretaker of this work, especially at a time when the truth can be viewed as an inconvenience to cover up rather than an inflection point to reconsider what we’ve collectively been taught.”

"Critical Race Theory" is just the tip of the iceberg for Harris, whose upcoming work reflects his encounters as a Black man in America and promises to continue giving voice to the African American experience at large. Constantly harvesting and sketching material for new work from current events, news cycles, antiquity, and lived moments, the artist feels he has at least 400 years of fuel that will keep him busy for a lifetime.

The painting can be viewed, along with the entire TRIPTYCH exhibition, in a virtual tour. You can follow Jonathan Harris on Instagram at @artyougifted, Facebook at Jonathan Harris Art, and Twitter at @JonHarrisArtist to keep up with his work.

On Saturday, Harris will present an Art Night Gala and Fundraiser in partnership with Irwin House Gallery and The Riverside Detroit, the new "raw luxury" venue on Detroit's west side where the affair will be held. The dress-up event will showcase the works of 30 Detroit local artists with art sales to benefit the Detroit Rescue Mission (DRMM), where Harris volunteered with his church members and family growing up in Detroit.

From 5 p.m.-10 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 18; 8711 Grand River Ave., Detroit; facebook.com/theriversidedetroit. Event is free to attend.

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