Modern Griots: John Jennings


John Jennings, who describes himself as a “a professional bender of time,” and is an associate professor in visual studies at University at Buffalo, blends together the worlds of comics, hip-hop and racial discourse. Here is some of his article from Buffalo’s website:

John Jennings centers his life on provocative questions: How can we show the work of underrepresented artists, especially those who do comics? How can we go beyond the racial stereotypes of traditional comic art to show the rich expression of black artists, past and present? And how can we help UB students see that creating art is a possibility for them, to recognize that “art is everywhere” and acquire what Jennings calls “visual literacy?”

Since arriving at UB this past fall, Jennings, associate professor of visual studies, has impressed students and colleagues alike with a sparkling resume of interests and accomplishments. He is at once a nationally recognized cartoonist, designer and graphic novelist. A researcher intent on explaining and “disrupting” black stereotypes in popular media, Jennings disseminates his insights via books, exhibits and lectures that prod people to think about under-recognized voices in American graphic arts. Laced with humor and satire, these are rich expressions of women, gays and others who may have felt themselves invisible in the larger society, but who nonetheless create powerful images of dissent, or moving depictions of their diverse experiences in America.

“I started making comics, or being interested in comics, at an early age,” says Jennings, who grew up in rural Mississippi and counts many artists among his extended family. “I had fallen out from making them for awhile when I was studying graphic design. There are really a lot of talented graphic artists out there, so it’s really difficult to break into the mainstream. I didn’t think I necessarily had the skills to do that properly. So I focused on graphic design as a way to make money and further my scholarship, and myself as an artist.”

After Jennings began teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he’d earned both an MA in art education and MFA in graphic design, he began to reexamine comics, “especially different modes of masculinity and performance. I was also looking at gangster rap, and video games and super hero comics. I became really interested in the racialized body, the hyper-masculine black body.

“So that’s what got me started looking at hip-hop and also comics, too. I began to see that there were a lot of stereotypes in popular serial comics. Even though it’s a hyper-masculine form or genre to begin with, the black male superhero was usually more physical, as far as just showing the body or being depicted as an athlete. You also didn’t see a lot of black male superheroes with telekinesis, or as leaders, or as villainous masterminds for that matter.”

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