Joe Overstreet’s ‘New Jemima’ became icon of civil rights movement

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Painting by Joe Overstreet

Jo Overstreet's "New Jemima"

Situated between Jackson and Meridian is a town of approximately 1,000 residents called Conehatta. In 1933, it became the home of Joseph Overstreet, whose artwork would one day tell a powerful story that made its way around the world.

“When we moved to Meridian, I went to a Catholic school where a teacher would discipline me by using a small ruler to beat my hands,” Overstreet said. “I started drawing all the time as a way to defend against this, so drawing became a habit.”

As time went on, Overstreet cultivated that natural talent — so much so that the Mississippi Arts Commission recently recognized Overstreet with the Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Visual Art for his lifetime of designing pieces that offer a creative glimpse into his African-American and Native-American heritage.

Photo courtesy of Joe Overstreet

Artist Joe Overstreet

Overstreet and his family moved five times by the time he was a teenager, finally landing in Berkeley, Calif. After working for a time as an animator for Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles, Overstreet began his professional studies at the California School of Fine Arts, where he met several black artists who would prove to be great influences on his artwork throughout his life.

In the late 1950s, Overstreet he made his way to New York City and set up a studio to paint, while designing storefront window displays on the side. Overstreet began making a real statement with his artwork, such as “The New Jemima” — a canvas box displaying the face made famous by a pancake mix, but with a twist. In this portrayal, the smiling Aunt Jemima is wielding a machine gun.

“In my painting, I think it is also easy for people to understand the rage, political consciousness, even the irony of the subject. ‘Mammy’ was one of the favorite stereotypes created by whites to control African Americans. Black folks were disgusted with these old, tired and exasperating ideas. In the new world of intergalactic space travel, New Jemima decided to take a stand,” Overstreet said in an interview with London’s Tate Modern. “So my painting reveals the New Jemima who chose a machine gun as her stove, or her kitchen equipment. She is shooting rapid fire pancakes.

“My New Jemima painting still sparks conversation today because the painting continues to travel to exhibitions in new places,” Overstreet said.

A portion of Overstreet’s nomination for the Governor’s Arts Award reads: “The significance of this piece as a national icon of the Civil Rights Movement cannot be underestimated — and it was created by an artist from Mississippi.”

Other famed Overstreet social pieces include “Strange Fruit,” an oil canvas painting he created in response a horrendous lynching, as well as Billie Holiday’s song of the same name.

Painting by Joe Overstreet, 1963

“Strange Fruit”

“I felt the most ridiculous anger I’ve ever felt, seeing this innocent kid they had maimed and disfigured and the neck was stretched. That photograph and the Billie Holiday song was probably what brought the painting together for me,” Overstreet said in an interview with Kenkeleba House of New York.

In 1963, Overstreet painted “Birmingham Bombing” after four young girls were killed in Birmingham by Ku Klux Klan members who bombed 16th Street Baptist Church.

“Joe Overstreet probably could not have done the kind of work he was doing during the Civil Rights era had he stayed in Mississippi,” said Jochen Wierich, curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art, which nominated Overstreet for the Governor’s Award. “In other words, he is a Mississippian who had to leave the state to really find his calling. But, by doing so, he has been a messenger for Mississippi in the world. His work is now exhibited not only in the United States but also across the world.”

Wierich was introduced to Overstreet’s work while doing research for the Mississippi Museum of Art’s bicentennial exhibition “Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise.”

“I was amazed when I learned that this artist, who was born in Mississippi, played such an important part in making civil rights a subject in art,” Wierich said. “I think that there are very few artists from Mississippi who have such a long and distinguished career and who are still virtually unknown in this state. Black people simply did not see a future for themselves here. He carved out a fabulous career for himself.”

Painting by Joe Overstreet

“Jimbo’s Bop City”

Though Overstreet has lived in cities that laud themselves as cultural epicenters, he still credits the land of his birth for the heavy impression it left on his works.

“Even today in New York City, my screen paintings are absolutely based upon the porch around my grandmother’s house in Conehatta,” Overstreet said. “I think living there in the wilderness helped me to develop a clear sense of color, and from my upbringing and early experiences I have an appreciation of the land and the natural world.”

Today, Overstreet lives in New York City with his wife, Corrine, operating a gallery designed to exhibit young, up-and-coming artists.

“Mississippi is a beautiful place — the trees, the moss, the red clay; there are lovely butterflies, snakes. The landscape gave me a lot to look at, to paint. My work became more and more about nature, and less about figuration,” Overstreet said of his home state in The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art.