NEW ORLEANS, LA.-
The Amistad Research Center, located on the Tulane University campus, is the nation's largest independent archive specializing in the history of African Americans and other minority ethnic groups. A lesser known aspect of the Center is its extraordinary collection of fine art dating from the nineteenth century to the present day.
"Beyond the Blues: Reflections of African America" in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center, presented by the New Orleans Museum of Art
and the Amistad Research Center, marks a long overdue public access to these remarkable works of art. On view at NOMA April 11 through July 11, 2010, the exhibition will feature nearly 150 works including paintings, prints, and sculpture, as well as archival materials such as letters and sketchbooks, providing a fascinating glimpse of the artistic process. Like the Collection itself, the exhibition is a map that charts change in American visual arts while highlighting African American connections passed, like a baton, over the course of a century from one generation to the next.
Given the considerable obstacles faced by most of the artists en route to public recognition, the outpouring of creativity and imagination showcased in Beyond the Blues is evidence of enormous perseverance and personal determination. Painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) and Edward Bannister (1828-1901) who made a living as artists around the turn of the nineteenth century were exceptions in their time. These men, while conscious of race, did not create particularly race-conscious art; rather, their work merged seamlessly with accepted thematic and aesthetic trends. They were among the few who gained access to formal art education or were able to apprentice in the atelier of a seasoned artist, as was the case for sculptor Edmonia Lewis (circa 1845-1911) in Rome. With the intensification of the New Negro movement in the 1920s, visual artists gained status as professional champions of racial uplift because of their ability to literally challenge black stereotyping with their art. As the visibility of and respect for art professions grew, so did their ranks.
Sculptors like Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) literally transformed the poor black Shoeshine Boy into a high art subject worth placing on a pedestal. When Barthé was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1924 through 1928, he was the only African American enrolled in the fine art program. The graphic arts held greater promise for employment, but when Ellis Wilson (1899-1977) completed the Art Institute's commercial art program around the same time as Barthé, his dark skin made it difficult to find work using his hard-earned skills. Settled in Manhattan, Wilson ended up an apartment building superintendent, painting lively reflections of black life at every opportunity. A small percentage of visual artists achieve fame and fortune. The choice to work against such odds is made by men and women who recognize that making art is their best contribution to society.
"Beyond the Blues" is anchored by traditional fine art categoriesportraiture, landscape, and genrefavored here by a varied cross-section of artists who used their talent to reflect on African America. The variety of methods that span generations and yet express like-minded sentiments is stunning. Within each category, four themes surfaced: "Seeing with Candor," "Inhabiting Our World," "Living in the Moment," and "Believing in Divinity." Across these themes runs a current of experiences that create a contextual and aesthetic flow uniting the entire Amistad Research Center Fine Arts Collection.
The theme "Seeing with Candor" includes portraits of notable persons such as Sarah Vaughan (Ben Jones [born 1942]) and Dr. James H. Robinson (Betty Holbrook [1913-2009]), as well as anonymous characters like Malvin Gray Johnson's (1896-1934) washerwoman or Elizabeth Catlett's (born 1915) sharecropper, in each case allowing for agreeable introductions to individuals with stories worth knowing. Many African American artists worked to undo denigrating representations of black peoples, especially during and just after the nineteenth century. The humanity and beauty of black faces spoke to artists who in turn shared, through careful and straightforward representations, vehicles for us to see and perhaps know something about their lives. Children, the promise of a positive future, were pictured in diverse and imaginative ways.
William H. Johnson (1901-1970) developed a style in the 1940s that reflected a child's innocence using crayon-bright colors and, with a different sensibility, Porter's (dates unknown) "Black is Beautiful" poster from the 1970s pictures a black girl, like a shimmering avatar, mirrored against a tropical fantasy. However, dark portrayals of childhood are here too. Boys rendered as deeply pensive beyond their years by Charles T. Johnson (dates unknown), Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), and William Artis (1914-1977) are reminders of another side of black adolescence. Children mature into men and women who become, in the hands of visual artists, symbols of social and economic strength. They are figures that define and animate space.
The visual art depiction of landscape is centuries old. That African American artists found inspiration in the spaces they inhabited and found unique ways to depict it comes as no surprise. Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) teases us with a glimpse out a curtained window, while Alma Thomas (1896-1978), using equally exuberant watercolors and liquid forms, asks us to meditate on nature's wonders loosely traced in her Flowering Tulip Trees. For many African Americans, urban landscapes were the most familiar. Malvin Gray Johnson painted his 1930s Tenements with admirable economy, yet it sways as if animated by a rousing rent party given by tenants trying to ward off eviction. That party has spilled into the streets in Buist Hardison's (born 1949) Detroit Summer, where color effectively simulates a sweltering heat that makes open, public spaces particularly lively. This Midwestern moment is right in step with John T. Scott's (1940-2007) Congo Square in New Orleans which vibrates to a point where the drumbeat is nearly audible. Vincent Smith (1929-2004) collaged the rough texture and appearance of a late 1960s cityscape, then softened it with graffiti expressing youthful romanceAnnie Lou Loves Bill. Visual art documents our environment with all its glitter and grit, myths and facts, revealing information about ourselves as much as the places we inhabit.
American artists looked to home for their subjects, especially in times of economic struggle such as during the Great Depression. In 1942, national responsibility again came to the fore when the United States entered World War II. This international conflict also marked the rise of the civil rights movement as African Americans demanded full citizenship. Facing radical social, political, and economic change, post-war American art became more open to abstract expressions. Expressionistic style and shape was often employed to reveal deeper meaning than that offered by naturalistic representations. At a time when new black cultural symbols were being designed, among them the raised fist and the radiating afro, a number of African American artists expressed their ideas and allegiances through abstraction.
John Dowell (born 1941), among others, recognized in jazz music an improvisational model he then used to create his Soul Coltrane of 1967, where line traces the trajectory of complex sound. Using color as the main force, Keith Morrison (born 1942)'s Carnival not only evokes place, but also the sensation of being enveloped by music. Abstraction freed these artists to describe the visible world as witness to more than meets the eye. For example, David Driskell's (born 1931) Winter Landscape shimmers like a fresh snowfall and James Phillips's (born 1945) untitled 1973 painting reveals his struggle to visualize music and poetry.
Phillips marveled at how a Coltrane horn solo could conjure up vibrant colors in his mind's eye. Because of the fleeting nature of listening, one must live in the moment to fully enjoy the experience. Deep appreciation for jazz is the foundation of many works by African American artists. For artists like John T. Scott, Kimberly Dummons (born 1972), John Dowell, and Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), jazz is like a religion. Donaldson's Mom & Pop speaks to the intersection of African spiritual belief where black elders brandish the staff of Shango, the Yoruba deity of justice and victory, and a reverence for African America's proud sages.
African American music also represents a genuine link to Africa, in that blues, gospel, jazz, hip-hop, and rap are signs of African cultural retentions. The Amistad Fine Arts Collection reminds us that many threads make up the whole cloth that is American culture. Visual artists in particular created with faith that their creations would contribute to America's cultural patrimony. Religious faithbelieving in divinitinspired artists like Hale Woodruff, whose lines create a Country Church that evokes the homespun quality of a rural place of worship, or Wilmer Jennings (1910-1990), who reminded us of the Bible's guidance in De Good Book Says, or Warren Marr III (born 1916), whose stoic rendition of religious tolerance, One Society, is dreamlike and yet very real and current in its sentiment. We encounter here old Bible stories told anew: the folk-like figures in William H. Johnson's temptation of Christ; Jonah encased, like the meat of a walnut, inside Driskell's whale; Allan Rohan Crite's (1910-2007) adoration of a black baby Jesus; and Woodruff's delightful array of inventive Magi.
There are many reasons to spend time with visual art and even more ways to see it. The Amistad Research Center is the custodian of incredibly special objects. They are valuable gifts from the artists, their patrons, donors, and all those responsible for making the holdings of the Amistad Research Center available to us. Respect them. Celebrate them. Support them. Enjoy them.