Philly artist offers political commentary on Obama years in brash, bright color

In 2008, Philadelphia artist James Dupree staged a show of new paintings marking the beginning of the Obama presidency. Now, as delegates to the Democratic National Convention get ready to nominate Hilary Clinton, Dupree is staging another show to bookend Obama’s two terms.

In his studio in the Mantua neighborhood, Dupree works in intense bursts. At 66 years old, he said he only sleeps every other day, moving through several canvasses in succession. His work tends to be about the immediate moment they were painted.

In 2008, Dupree — who is African-American — was so moved by the candidacy and election of President Obama that he exhibited a series of paintings called “If Not Now, When, America?” featuring colorful, optimistic work, underpinned by thoughts on racism and capitalism.

Now, he’s again reflecting on his feelings about America, and some of the same ideas remain.

“Yes, Hillary, you took money from Donald Trump,” said Dupree during a break in his studio. “What is this political thing really about? How much longer will capitalism last?”

“If Not Now, When, America — Past and Present” is a show of both series of works made eight years apart. It will be hung in two locations: Dupree’s gallery in the Queen Village neighborhood and in the Navy Yard, which — by no coincidence — is near the Democratic National Convention.

“Who knows if Hillary Clinton walks in and sees this? Who knows if Obama walks in and sees this? Who knows?” said Dupree. “All I know is, I’m doing me. I met a famous opera singer once and he said, ‘Don’t kid yourself, James, it’s all about you.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

In the last few years, Dupree’s studio was threatened by eminent domain. The city of Philadelphia declared his neighborhood blighted (his is the only remaining structure on the block) and set about seizing the land to make way for the development of a supermarket. Dupree, who would have been paid market rate for his building, fought back and won.

The experience, he said, was draining and depressing; likewise, he said, of his work during that time. This new set of paintings are colorful, vibrant with collage elements, and positive.

At least on the surface.

Dupree said he buries meanings in his work to make them subliminal, because — for most —the experience of racism is also subliminal.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.