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New Gallery Reflecting African-American Experience and Identity Opens at The Birmingham Museum
Willie Cole, American (born 1955), G.E. Mask and Scarification, 1998. Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art

BIRMINGHAM, AL.- The Birmingham Museum of Art opens on August 30, 2009, a gallery dedicated to the work of African-American artists. One of the few in the U.S., the gallery will reflect the depth of the Museum’s permanent collection, highlight new acquisitions, and feature traveling exhibitions as well as works on loan from other institutions and private collections rarely seen by the general public. The Museum's curators of African, Contemporary, and American art will collaborate on installations to rotate on a quarterly basis. African-American art will continue to be shown in the Contemporary, American, and Folk Art galleries of the Museum.

"We are delighted to highlight in a new way our very fine collection of works by African-American artists," says Gail Andrews, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art. “Many members of our community have told us that a space devoted to the work of African-Americans would be meaningful. We believe this newly-designed gallery responds to that desire and allows us to focus on a body of work of great interest to our staff and visitors.”

Titled Lift Every Voice: African-American Art from the Permanent Collection, and on view August 30, 2009 through January 3, 2010, the first exhibition in the gallery presents paintings, prints, sculpture, and photographs spanning a period of 140 years, from the mid-19th-century to the present. Although the works in the exhibition are diverse in media and subject matter, all reflect aspects of African-American experience and identity.

The Works
Some of the earlier works include a circa 1912 painting by the renowned Henry Ossawa Tanner reflectling his visit to North Africa, and photographs by James Van Der Zee and Prentice H. Polk documenting Black life in New York and Alabama in the early decades of the 20th century.

Religion and the Church are subjects explored in an early Romare Bearden painting and a photograph by Gordon Parks. Works by Benny Andrews, Bob Thompson, and Radcliffe Bailey refer to music in the Black experience. Other aspects of experience and identity are the subjects of work by Emma Amos, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall, David Driskell, Willie Cole, and Lillian Blades.

Jacob Lawrence’s Builders No. 1 (1971) will also be shown in the first installation. The Museum of Art brought to Birmingham one of the first tours of the combined Phillips Gallery (Washington, DC) and Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) collections of Lawrence’s Migration Series, a moving interpretation of the journey of African-Americans from the South to the North during the early 20th century.

Contemporary works in the gallery include Willie Cole’s G. E. Mask and Scarification, with its modern day references to the marks of slavery, and Emma Amos’s Measuring Measuring and Lorna Simpson’s Tense, which address racism and cultural standards of beauty.

Considering Race
“Although race does not define the form or style of art by African-Americans, there are nonetheless shared cultural experiences, histories, and artistic influences that are interesting to explore when art by African-Americans is gathered into one place,” says Emily Hanna, PhD, Curator of the Art of Africa and the Americas at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and curator of Lift Every Voice. “Our new gallery affords the opportunity to consider the wonderful threads of connection that exist among and between artists of African descent.”

The title chosen for this exhibition, Lift Every Voice, is fitting on many levels.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was performed publicly first on February 12, 1900, as a poem and as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted the song as the “Negro National Anthem.” This year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the NAACP.

“The Birmingham Museum of Art is offering an important experience, not only to African-Americans but to all of us. Few museums in the country have taken this step," says Judge Ralph Cook, a member of the Museum’s Board of Directors. “This initiative is being embraced by collectors of African-American art as well as leaders of our city and state's African-American community."

Planned for February 2010, the second installation of the African-American Gallery will feature P. H. Polk photographs from the Paul R. Jones Collection. Both Polk and Jones are natives of Bessemer, AL. The third installation will focus on multiple works by a group of living artists who examine issues of race as portrayed in popular culture and mass media.

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