Curtis Anderson, Ringling College graduate, tells his story in photos

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Telling a story from start to finish is a slow form of storytelling. Since Homer’s days, knowledgeable storytellers have liked to draw you into the heart of the action. Experienced visual storytellers are well aware of this trick.

Photographer Curtis Anderson is one of them. “The Story I’ll Tell: The Mixtape” unfolds its ongoing story through a series of powerful photographs at Ringling College of Art and Design. Tim Jaeger organized this exhibition, and it’s not for the faint hearted. Anderson’s images can be beautiful – or brutal. This black artist is after the truth – and doesn’t flinch when the truth is ugly. According to Anderson, this series struggles with “nationalism, race, identity, unity and life in Jesus Christ.” He was happy to share what it means.

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What is the central idea behind these photographs?

It’s more of a question than an idea.

What is the question?

How do I exist in my own skin and as a follower of Jesus Christ in the reality of 21st century America? I don’t have a single answer to this – just an ongoing investigation. And that’s what you see in these photographs. They are my artistic response to the racial climate of American culture and to my life with Christ. I keep my eyes open to both realities, and this is an ongoing project. I have been working on it for some time.

What prompted you to launch this survey?

It all started with a conversation a few years ago. i was talking with a friend [from church] and politics got involved. We were on very different sides – but despite this fact, Jesus still bound us together. I thought the truth was far more important than where he was and where I was politically. I decided to document this reality and explore the implications. This project just branched out from there.

It’s amazing how timely your project has become. Your imagery has a strange parallel with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yes. And that was a real catalyst for the realization of this exhibition. I don’t have as many black friends in Sarasota as where I grew up. I lost touch, in a way. I was experiencing a disconnect between my church life and who I am as an African American. The marches last year brought this to the forefront of my consciousness. I could see the pictures on television. Just seeing people on the streets – I felt super vulnerable. It brought up all those excessive emotions that I had suppressed and tossed aside. And then everything hit me like living water. My diversity was celebrated across the country – but how did that relate to what I believed in?

So many people in my church shared the same mindset. They said, “It’s not just black life that matters; it’s all lives that count. They didn’t recognize the pain – and they used the church as a way to hide from having real conversations with people who were different from them. Realizing this, I felt emotions that I didn’t even know existed – and that was really the spark. I started from a place of anger and pain. I knew I had to accept my faith and the color of my skin. And I realized that I had already struggled with this question in my photography. That’s when I reached out to Tim [Jaeger], and we started to put on this show.

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Your photo of the white cop pressing his knee against a black man on the sidewalk is heartbreaking. It is a brutal image. And it sounds like photojournalism – but I have to assume you staged it. Have you?

Yes I did it. And the man on the ground is me.

You don’t seem too comfortable. I guess this is a case of suffering for your art …

Absolutely. When I staged this scene, I really wanted to push it. I knew I had to do everything. So I knew this guy who had all this gear, the man you see in a uniform. I said, “I need you to play with me. I need you to press your knee down – we’re going to go until you feel good. So we shot for about an hour until we were finally right.

A photo of Ringling College graduate Curtis Anderson is featured on his show

The Individual Who Wrapped the Confederate Flag – What’s His Story? Is it true ?

Yes. He’s a friend of mine, a very good friend of mine, actually. He’s the man I was talking to four years ago in the conversation that sparked this whole series. It embodies a conservative Christian mindset with all of these rules and regulations that I’m supposed to follow if I’m going to consider myself a Christian. I couldn’t stand it, but we got back together and kept talking. (There’s a picture of us in Chipotle.) Seeing him draped in that flag, people instantly assume he’s this racist, gun-ridden guy. But take a closer look …

Her face actually looks rather soft.

Exactly! If you go beyond the surface image, that’s not who he is. In his heart he has a love for me and my family. If you really sit down and get to know your neighbor, that’s not what you think.

“The Story I’ll Tell: The Mix Tape” is the title of the exhibition. What story are you trying to tell?

The gospel, finally. Which literally means “the good news” and the good news for me personally. It might sound so cliché, but like I told Tim, if it weren’t for the gospel of Jesus, I would be a lost, super angry, radical person. I don’t want my work to be so Christian that it is irrelevant in the contemporary world. I want my work to speak to non-Christians and people outside the black community. I want to talk to everyone. I want my work to be a dialogue. This is how it all started at the beginning, and I want to keep the conversation alive.

“The story I’m going to tell: the mixing tape”

Until July 31 at the Patricia Thompson Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design, 2621 Bradenton Road; 941-359-7563; ringlingcollege.gallery. To view the exhibition online, visit: curtisandersonmixtape.com.


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