Viral 'Critical Race Theory' painting created overnight fame for Detroit artist

·5 min read

Fame came abruptly for Detroit painter Jonathan Harris, whose viral “Critical Race Theory” painting went around the world in a matter of days in late 2021.

Social justice Facebook page The Other 98% shared the painting with its 6.5 million followers on Nov. 21 and, almost instantly, it was popping up on various social media platforms. The original Other 98% post racked up about 24,000 reactions, 2,000 comments and 11,000 shares.

Jonathan Harris stands next to his painting titled, “Critical Race Theory” at Irwin House Gallery in Detroit on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Harris recently had an art show titled TRIPTYCH: Stronger Together introducing artists Crystal Starks-Webb and Terrell Anglin at Irwin House Gallery.
Jonathan Harris stands next to his painting titled, “Critical Race Theory” at Irwin House Gallery in Detroit on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Harris recently had an art show titled TRIPTYCH: Stronger Together introducing artists Crystal Starks-Webb and Terrell Anglin at Irwin House Gallery.

The self-taught artist had only been painting for about a year.

In December, the Free Press told Harris’ story, and his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.

“It’s been insane … but in a good way,” he said by phone last week. “People have been emailing me from all over the world, so many emails, every day – and messages on social media, too. I try to respond to each one individually, but it’s becoming so hard to do that, I just know I’m not going to be able to get to everyone.”

Galleries, museums, movie stars and politicians have contacted Harris, some with interest in his work, some simply to say that the “Critical Race Theory” piece resonated with them. Emails have come from people on multiple continents, in assorted non-English languages he’s had to translate before he could read them.

The original piece was purchased by a private owner from the Irwin House Gallery in Detroit's LaSalle Gardens neighborhood, where it was on display as part of an exhibition by artist-in-residence Harris. A limited number of prints were made available during the holidays and quickly sold out. A second round of prints were then made available, and sold out again. Harris and the story of the painting have been covered by TV news, talk shows and “Black Enterprise” magazine.

Misha McGlown, (left )the director of Irwin House Gallery, poses with Painter Jonathan Harris, who recently held a show at the gallery titled TRIPTYCH: Stronger Together that featured new work from Harris, Crystal Starks-Webb and Terrell Anglin.
Misha McGlown, (left )the director of Irwin House Gallery, poses with Painter Jonathan Harris, who recently held a show at the gallery titled TRIPTYCH: Stronger Together that featured new work from Harris, Crystal Starks-Webb and Terrell Anglin.

Irwin House gallery director Misha McGlown described it as “overwhelming – and I’m not complaining!

"And unexpected, of course. Both Jonathan and I are fielding tons of inquiries and requests, and also just supportive messages as well. It’s been a 24/7 rollercoaster adventure. And then the whole task of trying to get the prints and get them mailed and delivered safely. We’re trying to build a team of people to help on all fronts administratively."

McGlown said she and Harris started their work relationship more than a year ago, and he's been instrumental in building the gallery brand.

“I’m so happy we’ve been able to get his career off the ground in such a big way ... I’m equally happy to have him on my team,” she said.

What's coming up: Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in metro Detroit

More: Viral 'Critical Race Theory' painting is work of Detroit artist

Martin Luther King Day event

On Martin Luther King Day, Harris will engage in a public discussion of critical race theory with Cornelius Godfrey, supervisor of educational equity, inclusion and community relationships for the Troy School District. The talk will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. at the downtown venue Chene Parc, not to be confused with riverside recreation area Chene Park, in the First National Building as part of the City of Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day offerings.

Godfrey is also co-founder of Affirm Celebrate Advocate, a community organization focused on meeting the needs of students and families of color.

“You have these viral videos from school board meetings where parents are making claims that are uninformed or simply not even true (about critical race theory),” said Godfrey.

Critical race theory broadly addresses the historical and ongoing impact of systemic racism.

“I have an obligation as a district representative,” he said, “to address the needs of our students who are experiencing or being impacted by inequity. And I think one of the greatest means is communication and having an open dialogue.”

Political interference, however, has created difficulties when it comes to open discussions about critical race theory, he said. He said the attention-getting school board episodes are tied to political agendas.

"Great art is a window into who we were, are and can be," said Rochelle Riley, director of the City of Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship, or ACE. "With a single painting, Jonathan Harris explained exactly what the fake debate over critical race theory is doing. Some people are using it to erase Black history. His picture really is worth a thousand words."

The city of Detroit will offer more than five hours of programming beginning at noon Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

The events are co-sponsored by Detroit ACE and City Detroit Media, and will include remarks by city historian Jamon Jordan on King’s relationship with Detroit, and a conversation between Riley, Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Virginia Johnson and executive director Anna Glass, a Detroit native. The Dance Theatre of Harlem talk comes just days before the troupe’s regional premiere of “Higher Ground,” a work set to the music of Stevie Wonder that will be performed at the Detroit Opera House Jan. 22 and 23.

All of the city’s special events Monday can be viewed on the Detroit arts and entertainment channel, channel 22, the city’s YouTube channel and at facebook.com/TheDetroitACE.

For more information about Jonathan Harris, contact Irwin House Gallery at irwinhousegallery@gmail.com or (313) 932-7690, or visit jonathanraymondharris.com.

Contact Free Press arts and culture reporter Duante Beddingfield at dbeddingfield@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @DBFreePress.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 'Critical Race Theory' painting brought Jonathan Harris overnight fame

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