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The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster: Beautiful art, offensively racist, or simply exploitation?

By Whitney Christy

From ABC News to the BBC, the controversial Ponchatoula Strawberry festival poster has been burning up conversations around the world. The painting created by Kall Siekkinen depicts two “figures” of the opposite sex, one holding a crate of strawberries, both with dark black skin and bright red lips. Siekkinen claims the poster was solely inspired by a local black artist from Covington, Bill Hemmerling.

Not all reviews were negative, but others spoke of boycotting the Strawberry Festival, calling it blatantly offensive to people of color. Personally, I’m torn. As a black person, do I find it offensive? Or as a professionally trained artist, do I find it enlightening?

To those that wonder why black people see it as racist, the images directly reflect the cartoon likeness of “pickaninny.” Pickaninny is a term that has been used a number of different ways, but in the South it describes the children of slaves, which is why it hits close to home. The term was popularized in reference to the character of Topsy in the 1852 book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

At first glance, I was definitely offended, but I had a few questions I needed answered. Who is this Siekkinen? Is it genuinely folk art or was the artist being subconsciously racist?

Kall Siekkinen, according to his own personal website, lacks professional art training. I was surprised to learn that he considered Bill Hemmerling a close friend. It wasn’t until after Hemmerling’s passing in June of 2009 that Siekkinen decided to embark on his own creative journey. Siekkinen learned his skills from Hemmerling, which is why he paints in the style we see.

“My brother and I were with Bill bedside at his home when he passed away, and his soul ascended up into the heavens,” Siekkinen said on his website. “Since Bill’s passing, I have been obsessed with painting. I am saddened by the loss of my good friend, and all of my works seek to honor my late friend and teacher.”

Learning this altered my initial review of the poster. I’ve come to the understanding that this is Siekkinen’s way of maintaining a relationship with the artist that has passed on, as many artists have done with their influences.

As an artist, the conceptual design is easier for me to understand, but as black woman I am still offended. I’ve reviewed Siekkinen’s gallery and seen that this is not something he created for just the festival; he has painted in this style for years. This is his perception of Hemmerling’s style.

Is it good representation of the style? No.

Why do some find this offensive you ask? Sensitivity has nothing to do with it. A few facts about the festival and their history of poster sales might clear this up.

The Strawberry Festival Posters, first issued by the Kiwanis Club in 1977, are the only official posters associated with the festival. Each poster is signed by the artist, numbered, and carries the official seal of the Kiwanis Club of Ponchatoula. The 2009 poster commemorating the Saints’ Super Bowl win held the record number of poster sales (1,400), until now.

Four hundred prints of the poster created by Siekkinen were prepared for sale this year. Within three days of the release, another 1,000 prints were made and sold. Within two weeks, over 2,400 prints were ordered with the club expected to sell 5,000 by June. Why the drastic increase in sales?

Everyone wants to be part of the excitement. If the poster weren’t so controversial, sales would have remained in the hundreds. Buyers aren’t really supporting the artist by purchasing the poster. If that’s your intention, buy his other works or attend one of his gallery shows.

Reportedly, local NAACP met with festival organizers for 90 minutes. Within that time it was decided the artwork would be pulled from the festival. This was all done in vain, as the poster is still being sold by the direct representatives of the festival – which defeats the purpose of taking it down.

Of course, one should be forced to stop creating their artwork just because it offended others. That takes away an artist’s freedom. But Siekkinen has simply been recreating another artist’s style and benefiting from the notoriety that the poster’s publication has caused. The term “copyright infringement” comes to mind.

Siekkinen is Caucasian, which leads some to say he has no right to illustrate black people in such a way — publically — while gaining publicity for a style of painting that isn’t his own. The posters claim to be limited editions, selling at $25 and $40, but the Kiwanis Club states on their Facebook page that they will continue selling prints “until everyone has one.” That doesn’t sound like limited edition to me.

Art will always be subjective, but this is merely exploitation of a dead man’s artwork for public attention and money, while watering down the value of something he seemed so dedicated to. If Siekkinen truly cared for his friend, he wouldn’t allow the media to exploit both of their artworks. Kiwannis Club is just as guilty, because even though the profits are going back into the community – it’s all about a dollar. This can be seen as an overblown issue that is being milked for all its worth, never mind the fact that large parts of the community have rejected it.

To view the poster visit kalleart.com and to learn more about Hemmerling’s work visit hemmerlingart.com.

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