SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s ironic to think acclaimed painter Mike Henderson loved teaching his craft at UC Davis for 43 years, after he himself despised his schooling in his native Missouri, and dropped out because of racial remarks from a teacher.
“A science teacher started comparing us all, all the Black students in the class, with animals like apes and so forth,” Henderson said. “He would say, ‘Ok you guys stand up, now look at they lips.’”
After moving in the ‘60s, Henderson said he continued to experience racial injustice in San Francisco attending social justice rallies.
His life experiences eventually would make their way on to canvas and are a prominent piece in the exhibition currently on view at the UC Davis Manetti Shrem Art Museum.
His works are a rarity, as there are few paintings from the ‘60s depicting the racial images and feelings of Black people by a Black painter.
“I’m glad that I did them, I’m glad that I saw it, and I’m glad that I said something,” Henderson said. “That’s what I want my son to say. That’s what I want your kids to say. I used to tell my class of students that: ‘It’s your life, it’s your time. Just don’t be a spectator through it all.’”
Not only skilled with a brush, Henderson has also released blues albums and made short films, some of which are on view at the exhibition.
The display is also important because of the lack of representation of Black artists historically in museums.
Founding Director of the museum Rachel Teagle said this exhibition has been in the works for long a time, but there has been a bump in interest in Black artists since George Floyd’s death.
“The issue of under representation is the crucial issue of art museums in our time,” Teagle said. “I see it as my responsibility to be part of a movement to make sure that the art we show in our museum is as diverse as our community in California.”
Teagle also noted the huge reaction from viewers to Henderson's work, the most responses in their visitor journals of any exhibition at the museum.
Henderson said he’s humbled by such acknowledgment.
“You know I’m thrilled about it all and being seen,” he said. “And the people are relating to it.”
Hederson said he is glad his paintings can continue to teach for generations to come, because the issues depicted in his paintings continue to haunt society.
The exhibition, “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985,” is open to the public until July 15. For more information, visit the museum's website.