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Written by the victors

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African-Americans undeniably needed a better ad campaign for their race than the one they've gotten from white spin doctors whose previous representations of "black" has been a public relations fiasco.

Cedric Smith's artistic mission in Deeply Rooted is to alter and correct decades of propaganda. His solo show at Matre Gallery features two bodies of work -- portraits and advertisements -- dedicated to revisionism.

Smith's sentimental mixed media portraits work with the very physical material of history. The artist both vintage and contemporary photographs of children at work and play wildly colorful Henri Matisse-meets-Peter Max psychedelic landscapes where borscht skies shine down on grape soda trees. Angelic children look out at the viewer like orphans cut off from their historical context but who are adapting to the brave new world in which Smith has placed them.

Smith lends an air of hopefulness to the images of tiny golf caddies or fruit pickers by proposing a better, hypothetical future than the one these children actually faced in their own time.

While the portraits are relatively straightforward, Smith's other body of work -- of black children in distressed faux-advertisements for Sonny Boy peanut butter or Mississippi Mud Pie -- is more complex.

Unlike Texas artist Michael Ray Charles' darkly humorous faux-advertisements that address the racist vision of African-Americans as Sambos and Mammys, Smith's old-timey ads ooze vintage charm as in the image of a little girl sitting atop a giant hot dog, poised to land a fork in the freak show wiener.

But then there's the advertisement of two vaguely frightened-looking children flanked by an enormous watermelon slice, a far more complicated, loaded image plucked out of racism's dire trick bag.

What exactly is Smith saying about the use of these bright-eyed children to sell Coca-Cola and Georgia plums? Is Smith, as in his portraits, proposing an alternate American history in which black faces were valued enough to sell goods? And is that really progress?-- Felicia Feaster

Cedric Smith: Deeply Rooted runs through Oct. 31 at Matre Gallery, 75 Bennett St., Space G2, Tula Art Center. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-350-8399. www.matregallery.com.

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