The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival is being held April 10-12, and organizers are busy making preparations, no doubt. However, the highly anticipated festival took a public relations blow this week that forced their focus to shift to a sensitive issue. Kalle Siekinen, the artist of the official for the poster of the festival, was right in the crosshairs thanks to his controversial poster design. The poster depicts two African- American children, with no distinguishable facial features or accents. The dark complexion and lack of features crossed the line of being a negative stereotype. Similarities can be seen between Siekinen's poster and some of the art of his mentor, Bill Hemmerling. Supporters of the poster argue that since the children have no faces, they could be anyone. Either way, it did not take long for this debate to blow up and force a reaction from the festival's organizers.
Shelley Matherne, a public relations representative of the festival, informed the public after a meeting of festival board members and the Ponchatoula Kiwanis Club that the festival would not alter the poster. Both organizations issued this joint statement on Thursday, March 19, regarding the controversy.
"The Ponchatoula Kiwanis Club coordinates the development and printing of the Official Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival Poster. This year they held a contest to select the poster. The Kiwanis selected artist Kalle Siekkinen. Kalle apprenticed under the late Bill Hemmerling, who was a world-renowned local Ponchatoula artist. Mr. Hemmerling was the artist of our 2008 poster "Sweet Olive." The 2008 poster was immediately embraced by our community. Even though it is no longer available, it is still in demand today. Kalle's poster was inspired by “Sweet Olive;” therefore, the Ponchatoula Kiwanis Club thought it would have the same positive reception by the community.
Art is subjective. It is interpretive. There was no intent other than to pay tribute to the festival and the strawberry industry. ‘Although similar, Kalle's art is different. His African American paintings are free and spirited and express feelings of joy, happiness and laughter.' In a previous article written by Lil Mirando with the Daily Star, she referred to Mr. Hemmerling's depiction of Sweet Olive as an ‘effort to build a bridge between cultures. Sweet Olive's face is detailed in only a few of the paintings, but her facelessness does not mean she is nobody. It means she is everybody.'
We look forward to seeing everyone at this year's festival!"
Is it an aesthetic choice of the artist that some people are misinterpreting? Is it relevant or provocative? Or does does it perpetuate negative stereotypes and raise an alarm for all of those who planned to attend this years festival? Whatever your opinion, there is no denying that this years poster for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival is polarizing and going to drape a cloud over the festival for the time being.