Detroit artist Paul Johnson is pushing back against negative stereotypes denigrating black people by twisting hateful images into beautiful works of art. 

With his exhibit "Sambo Princess," Johnson embraces big lips and kinky hair, showing that there is no reason for black people to hate their features.

"Being raised African-American, just kind of growing up and being told this is how we are being seen with big pink lips, big ears, like animals--you know,” Johnson said during an interview with Michigan Radio. “I really wanted to take that concept and beautify it."

Johnson’s work reclaims the minstrel depictions from the 19th and 20th centuries often used to dehumanize black people by painting us as buffoons and clowns.


For about a month, the exhibit has been wowing art enthusiasts impressed by Johnson's use of color and his character Princess who is featured in every piece. Princess began as a doodle inspired by anime Johnson made in high school. Now, she has blossomed into a symbol larger than life. 

He said it is his job to push people out of their comfort zones and change the way people think. But, ultimately, he wants people to enjoy his work. "I just want people to have fun. And to think that they can do it themselves." He added that art does not have to be perfect, it just has to be empowering. 

"Sambo Princess" will run through Sunday, May 6, at the Grey Area in Detroit.