Whenever I enter the Bindery Projects space in St. Paul, I already know that something really cool is going to happen. Like an oasis, the Bindery is refreshing: it not only serves as a platform for socially-based art, but also encourages critical thinking and dialogue centered on it. This month, Nery Gabriel Lemus’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich exhibit is no exception to this rule. Hailing from Los Angeles, Lemus puts on full display a subject that remains relatively unexplored: Black and Brown heroism.
What I found most unique is the artist’s spin: the thematic infusion of his social work background as a behavioral specialist in L.A. as inspiration. Brightly-hued piñata shapes, mounted against a white backdrop, spell out “Papi”—a term of endearment used for both fathers and betrothed men. Folkloric constructions of courage are made tangible in his mixed-media compositions Goin Where You Goin, That’s Where and All Grown Up—Never Grew Up. Pulling also from his experiences of his own father, the trajectory of each one of Lemus’s 2D and 3D pieces bring to focus a youthful idealism and traditional stories of bravery.
Take Things I Learned From My Dad and TV, a set of 11 bold and blithe crayon and colored-pencil drawings on white. The long red capes, Spider-Man costumes, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, and the Christ-like figure titled Let the Children Come to Me (created by the artist’s son), struck me instantly. The collaborative set (Lemus’s detailed handiwork is apparent in each piece) embodies a sense of expectancy through the identification of a personal savior. In stark contrast to the back story provided by Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin But a Sandwich, in which protagonist Benjie seems to have given up on the hope of someone to come and save the day for him, Lemus’s Things I Learned captured a world where a hero needed to exist.
Taking into account the geography Lemus’s pieces are rooted in, I still had to consider whether the lens to view heroism is narrowly fixated on cut-and-dry rules projected by popular culture, or if there is there room for a child to question and struggle with a standard of a hero that may not exist in his reality. Attached to that thought is reflection on the societies we live in, that house intense racial stratification, which, in relation to Lemus’s pieces, counters a conditioning of heroism.
In using Childress’s book as context, Lemus reconciles the Latino perspective of heroism alongside an African-American perspective, creating room for a conversation from culturally explicit yet shared experiences. Because in a time where African-American and Latino male role models are rarely mentioned, a black or brown child may be subconsciously asking if a hero can be found in himself.
Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.