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Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience" at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
Dustin Harewood, Out from the Gloomy Past, acrylic, spray paint, resin on canvas, 40 x 62 in. (detail).

JACKSONVILLE, FLA.- The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens announces LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience, on view June 14, 2016 through February 12, 2017, and coinciding with the birthday of James Weldon Johnson and the first singing of the song Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. The exhibition has been co-curated by the Cummer Museum and the Ritz Theatre & Museum, and presents area contemporary artists’ responses to Jacksonville’s rich artistic African American heritage, with an emphasis on creating an artful platform to discuss issues around race, equity, and community. Using the original lyrics to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a song written by Jacksonville natives James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson in 1900 for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday, artists Thony Aiuppy, Glendia Cooper, Ingrid Damiani, Overstreet Ducasse, Dustin Harewood, Marsha Hatcher, Hiromi Moneyhun, Princess Rashid, Chip Southworth, and Roosevelt Watson III created pieces that present their views about the complex history of race relations in Jacksonville and beyond. From literal interpretations of the lyrics to more abstract emotional responses, these new works inspire, challenge, confront, and uplift, providing a contemporary view to the words and social relevance of the Johnson brothers’ masterpiece. LIFT is a Cultural Fusion: Lift Every Voice event.

In 1900, James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938) was the principal of Jacksonville’s Stanton School, the largest African American public school in the state of Florida. After writing the poem to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday, he enlisted the assistance of his brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873 – 1954), to set the words to music. The result of this collaboration was the song Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, which was later adopted by the NAACP as its official anthem. The song was originally intended to be sung by a group of 500 school children from Stanton at a commemoration celebration for Lincoln, but after the initial performance the students continued to sing it on their own, teaching it to others, and within 20 years it was being sung all over the South and in other parts of the country.

“We sing songs all the time but rarely think twice about what is being sung or what message the artist is trying to get across,” states participating artist Marsha Hatcher. Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing was the song we sang on the first Sunday and on special occasions. As a child, I knew that it was on page 477 in The New National Baptist Hymnal with the burgundy cover. It even has the names James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson printed in tiny letters next to the title. I knew that this was “our” song and we were to hold hands when we sang it.”

The local artists participating in LIFT are not the first to have used the Johnson brothers’ song as inspiration. In 1939, locally-born sculptor Augusta Savage received a commission to create a sculpture to commemorate African American contributions to song for the World’s Fair in New York. Standing approximately 16ft. tall, Savage’s sculpture, The Harp, personified the instrument, using African American youth as the strings, nestled within a sounding board that transformed into a hand and lower arm. A kneeling figure at front offered the musical score. Although the sculpture was one of the most popular at the Fair, and celebrated as one of Savage’s major works, she did not have enough money to cast it in to bronze, and the plaster sculpture was destroyed at the conclusion of the Fair. Despite the fact that The Harp no longer exists in its final form, its legacy continues through numerous photographs and smaller souvenir reproductions.

“Most African American children of my generation were raised with Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing as an anthem to our community,” states Princess Simpson Rashid, another of the participating LIFT artists. “We learned and recited it at school along with the Pledge of Allegiance. It is part of our lived experience. It’s lodged in our collective memory. The song embodies our history but also our hope and pride as an ethnic American minority. When the lyrics are juxtaposed with current events in this country, it is clear that the poem is still relevant and necessary. Our country is strengthened when empathy causes us all to stand up and lift our voices together for justice and the harmonies of liberty.”

Much like Augusta Savage, the LIFT artists have been tasked with reinterpreting words through a contemporary lens, bringing their personal experiences into these new works. Their voices now are lifted, and perhaps through experiencing their works, visitors to the exhibition can create their own connections to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing and find personal ways to “lift” their own voices, creating a community wide conversation about the contemporary relevance of the song.

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