Sunday, October 13, 2013

Looking at African American Art

I went down to Albuquerque to visit our nearest Apple store in search of a new computer and decided that I would go and see an exhibition at the science museum, “STARTUP: Albuquerque and the Personal Computer Revolution” about Paul Allen and Bill Gates and the beginning of Microsoft in Albuquerque.  As luck would have it, the exhibit was closed for updating but I found myself opposite the art museum so I thought I would pay a visit.  They rotate exhibitions and I happened upon one called, “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond” organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The curator, Virginia M. Mecklenburg, had a theme in mind.  She wanted to show the artistic reaction that Black Americans had to their lot before, during and after the civil rights movement. This quote I found is probably the best way to put the exhibition in context:

“In his 1925 essay, "The New Negro", Howard University Professor of Philosophy Alain Locke encouraged African American artists to create a school of African American art with an identifiable style and aesthetic, and to look to African culture and African American folk life for subject matter and inspiration. Locke's ideas, coupled with a new ethnic awareness that was occurring in urban areas, inspired up and coming African American artists. These artists rejected landscapes for the figurative, rural scenes for urban and focused on class, culture and Africa to bring ethnic consciousness into art and create a new black identity. The New Negro movement would later be known as the Harlem Renaissance.”
Some reviewers said the show was just an opportunity for the Smithsonian to dig works of art out of storage that have not been seen before and others said “Never been seen before” as a positive not a negative. 

I generally have a problem with the term African American artist, either one is an artist or not and one’s ethnicity should not play a role.  As the writer and cultural critic TourĂ© was quoted in the exhibition, “Our Community is too diverse, complex. Imaginative, dynamic creative and beautiful to impose restraints on Blackness”

In this case, however, the concept is that through approximately 100 works and 41 artists addressing their environment the viewer gets some insight into the world of being black in America.  I did not feel the works as condemning of whites as they might have been. They were rather observations of what was, and as such, far more powerful. Maya Angelou is quoted in 1993, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.

The first work I saw when I came into the exhibition was by Melvin Edwards (born 1937 Houston, Texas) It is a welded steel piece entitled “Tambo” 1993, as a tribute to the president of the African National Congress who died that year.  He and Nelson Mandela had in the 1940’s turned the ANC into an activist organization calling on the people of South Africa to peacefully protest Apartheid. The South African police, however, proceeded to kill 69 peaceful protesters. This changed the organization into a militant one resulting in it being outlawed in South Africa and Tambo going into exile for 30 years. He then led the fight from outside the country which must have been preferable to going to jail which Mandela ended up doing.  The objects in the sculpture represent the origins and tools Tambo had to repair society.

An artist who lived and died in Knoxville, Tennessee, Joseph Delaney (1904-1991) studied with Thomas Hart Benton in New York and a work in this show that I found very evocative and of the period is a 1943 painting called “Penn Station at War Time”.  It captures the hubbub of Penn Station still today and I observe few if any blacks present. Though my nanny’s husband at the time was a short order chef on the Pennsylvania Railroad!

One of my all time favorite artists is Jacob Lawrence (1917 Atlantic City, New Jersey -2000 Seattle, Washington).  I “discovered” him decades ago when his “Migration Series” was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  For this exhibition an image was chosen called “Bar and Grill” a 1941 gouache on paper.  In this picture the space for the blacks and whites is divided by a slatted wall, again a most powerful image.

There are so many images to choose from but maybe the most appropriate one to end on is one by Gordon Parks (1912, Fort Scott, Kansas - 2006 New York City).  I may have even met him once in the office of our doctor with whom we were both friendly as well as being patients.   Parks was a great photographer of the contemporary scene and here we have one, appropriately enough called, “Harlem” where all the residents of an apartment building are trying to get some air on a summer day in 1948.

This evocative exhibition transported me to another world with a different culture and may have been more educational than the history of the computer!   It will be showing through January 19, 2014 at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.

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