by Devin Fehely

OAKLAND (KPIX) — If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes, what might a thousand pictures say about a community — a group of people — too often viewed through a lens of fear, hatred or prejudice?

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One East Bay artist recently completed a six-year creative journey during which she tried to answer that question.

Ajuan Mance, a professor of literature at Mills College in Oakland, began that journey with a simple sketch of an African-American man in black and white. Over the years Mance added more and more portaits, in vivid colors and subtle shades, to complete a meta-portrait of black men in America.

Mance began drawing black men because she felt the way they were portrayed in society was inaccurate and often unfair forming, at best, an incomplete picture and, at worst, a darkly-distorted one. So one portrait became two, then three and four and so many more.

“To really capture some aspect of the diversity of black men’s experiences, I’d need a thousand drawings. I’d need to do it for multiple years,” she said.

Mance drew inspiration from everyday life, sketching the men she saw in coffee shops, at the library or riding on the train.

“I thought about all the black men I see every day — really great people. They’re the men who populate my community. And I thought I wanted to see more of those men,” Mance said.

Midway through the project, in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mance’s work, for a time, took a deeply personal and political turn. She began to sketch black men she’d got to know — not only in life but in death.

Ferguson teen Michael Brown … Jonathan Ferrell, gunned down by police in North Carolina.

“I think of all these people who have been killed by police or vigilante violence, all of these people are, in effect, martyrs. The subtext is black bodies matter. Black bodies feel pain. Black bodies have value,” Mance said.

Early last year, Mance decided the final image in her project would be a portrait of someone she’d known in rich, warm living color — her father.

“It was really wonderful to do a tribute to one of the people whose support early on fostered in me this idea that I could be an artist,” she said. “But I also want people to take away this idea that 1,001 drawings is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m really capturing a tiny, tiny sliver of the diversity of black men’s lives and experiences.”

Mance continues to sketch portraits of black men. Her latest project pairs those images with short stories about their lives. She hopes this can offer a window into their world.

Mance plans an exhibit sometime this summer, where she hopes to display all 1,001 portraits together for the first time.

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