by Juline Chevalier, Curator of Education
We’ve had this work of art on view in our permanent collection gallery since January of this year, and the words at the top, “aint nuthin but a sandwich,” have been a mystery to me until this week.
Most groups who visit the museum on guided tours are also perplexed by it at first, but when I, or my colleagues in the education department, pose questions like, “What do you associate with a sandwich?” or “What kind of food is a sandwich?” we start to get really thoughtful and thought-provoking interpretations.
Before you read on, take a moment to think of your own answers to those questions and how your answers relate to the image as a whole.
Did you stop and think about your own interpretation?
Some interpretations and reactions we’re encountered:
- -A sandwich has many layers, and the person in the work of art has layers – he’s a superhero on the inside and a normal person on the outside.
- -A sandwich is an everyday food, i.e. there’s nothing special about it, so the person in the work of art is an everyday, regular person, and maybe he’s an everyday hero. Or, all regular people are heroes.
- -Many older students (6-12th grades) love the text and think the phrase means “it’s simple” (similar to ‘piece of cake’ or ‘easy as pie’). Therefore it’s easy to be a superhero underneath a conservative appearance.
- -Some visitors hate the words and think it ruins the work of art.
Earlier this week, some colleagues and I were chatting about the work of art and the phrase. We talked about how it was very frustrating for some Gallery Guides to not know what the phrase meant, and we joked that we should start using the phrase to mean “easy as pie” and hope that it would catch on.
As we talked, it dawned on me that I had never even tried to look up the phrase on the all-knowing internet. Of course, once I entered the phrase into Google, I got an instant answer. And that answer has made me both happy and sad.
All of a sudden, I felt I knew more about the artist’s intent and what he was communicating. The phrase does have a logical connection to the image, but at the same time, I was disappointed that it’s no longer a mystery for me. There’s something quite magical about exploring a work of art’s meaning with a group, joining in the process of discovery, and exploring newly-minted meanings. It’s like we’re all on an adventure together.
Now, I feel like I’ve gotten to the end of a long hike and seen the view at the end of the trail. I enjoyed the view, but I also realize the hike was a lot more fun and engaging than the end point.
I look forward to continuing to explore the work of art with groups of visitors of all ages, since I can experience that sense of discovery vicariously through them, but it’s not quite the same. Plus, I now face the challenge of deciding whether to share what I know with groups.
With elementary and some middle school groups, it would not be interesting for them to learn the information, and it might even be confusing or inappropriate to try and explain it to them. But with older groups of high school students, college/university students, and adults, I will likely share the information after they discuss their own opinions. The information provides context and background that can create further connection to the art in a different way than creating your own meaning. However, I worry that once they hear the “right” answer that they will forget about their personal interpretation, or worse, think that theirs was a bad idea, and focus on the “facts.”
What is a museum educator to do? What would you do?
I will now reveal the “meaning” of the phrase “ain’t nuthin’ but a sandwich.”
If you do not choose to read further, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let us know why you didn’t read on.
A Hero Ain’t Nuthin’ but a Sandwich is the title of a book for young adults written by Alice Childress, originally published in 1973. The main character, Benjie, is 13. He lives in an impoverished neighborhood and is a heroin addict, though he says he can quit any time. The book is told from the point of view of various people in his life including his mother, his step-father, his teacher and his drug dealer.
A film version, with the same title, was made in 1978 starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield.
So, now that you know this, how do you feel about the work of art? What has changed for you? Do you wish you didn’t know? Why or why not?
Fahamu Pecou, Nunna My Heros: After Barkley Hendricks’ ‘Icon for My Man Superman’, 1969, 2011. Acrylic, gold leaf, and oil stick on canvas, 63 x 49 1/2 inches. (160 x 125.7 cm). Gift of Marjorie and Michael Levine, T’84 2012.8.1.]