Center Art Gallery premieres “The Undefeated”


Abigail Poirier

The paintings utilize a diverse pallet to capture the fullness of African American history.

Calvin University’s Center Art Gallery is currently home to this year’s Caldecott Medal-winning collection of illustrations by Kadir Nelson. Titled “The Undefeated,” the travelling exhibition of paintings is beginning its tour at Calvin and will be on display through April 24. In addition to winning the 2020 Caldecott medal, The Undefeated has won the 2020 Newberry Honor, as well as the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. 

The illustrations are paired with a children’s book of the same title, written by Kwame Alexander.Nelson’s paintings were created specifically to illustrate the themes of Alexander’s poem—originally written in 2008. Nelson’s paintings were created for the poem, giving faces to the story of race in America and adding the impact that made the award-winning children’s book what it is today. The paintings on display are meaningful with or without text. They are well-lit and set against the white backdrop of the art gallery walls, where both the lighter and darker aspects of their story are equally impactful. 

Painted in a starkly realistic style, Nelson’s characters include popular athletes, political and historical figures, and prominent fighters for justice. They are portrayed openly and emotionally, Nelson’s passion and pain bringing them to life. He uses bright colors alongside a darker palette to fully express all aspects of the history of African American people. For instance, “Unspeakable (BLM)” depicts a memorial for victims of racial violence: flowers and candles painted in cheerful colors alongside a cross, photographs of the deceased and signs pleading for justicex. Nelson does not shy away from the reality of his subjects, portraying both triumph and loss throughout. 

“This is a love letter to America,” the front flap of the dust jacket reads. “To black America. To the grit, passion and perseverance of our greatest artists, athletes and activists. To the dreamers. To the strength and bravery of everyday people caught in the web of history.” “The Undefeated” aims to celebrate the rich and meaningful history of African Americans in a way that is accessible to readers of all ages, while pointing ahead to a bright future. 

Gallery director Brent Williams said, “The poem is a celebration of impactful people who stood for what they believed and made a difference. The paintings add a level of visual complexity and bring life and faces to the words. Artistically speaking, the art works stand on their own.” 

“The Undefeated” exhibition highlights the impactful work of artists and writers, as well as their collaboration, in conjunction with the upcoming Festival of Faith and Writing. Kadir Nelson will be the opening plenary speaker at the Festival on April 16. Writer Kwame Alexander has also previously been associated with the Festival, having been the opening plenary speaker in 2018. 

We count it a great privilege to share these paintings with this community,” Williams adds. “Whether you walked across campus, boarded a bus, or flew over an ocean to be here, we welcome you.”