August Issue 2002
Mint Museum of Art Presents African American Works from the David C. Driskell Collection
"We are blessed to live in a world where
the indomitable human spirit rises above the chaos of violence,
hunger and pain and soars to a heightened relief through the making
- David C. Driskell
The national tour of the exhibition Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection is being extended by its stop at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art, from Aug. 24 through Oct. 27, 2002. It is a collection well worth the look. The exhibition's Charlotte appearance is made possible by the sponsorship of Bank of America with additional support from the Foundation for the Carolinas, IBM and TIAA-CREF, as is the companion exhibition Charlotte's Own: Romare Bearden.
The quest for personal and cultural identity is the common thread that binds the diverse artistic styles of 125 years of African-American art on display in the exhibition, organized by The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland. The search for identity, the reclamation of heritage, the expression of values and issues fundamental to African-Americans in developing their own aesthetic styles and voice are persistent themes to be found among the 100 paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures in the exhibition.
As a leading scholar of African-American art, David Driskell was called upon by President Bill Clinton to select a work by an African American artist for permanent display in the White House. Driskell's choice, Henry O. Tanner's Sand Dunes at Sunset: Atlantic City was unveiled in the Garden Room on Oct. 29, 1996. A highly regarded artist as well as scholar, Driskell's personal art collection reflects works selected with the eye of an artist and the critical perspective of an art historian. The works reveal Driskell's personal preferences for nature and spirituality and traditional aesthetics through the lens of the African American social experience. The collection began, and was largely built, through David Driskell's various roles as teacher, curator, artist and mentor within the informal "Black Academy" through positions at Talladega College, Howard University and Fisk University before serving 25 years as Professor of Art at the University of Maryland.
Narratives of African-American Art and Identity thematically begins with artists working primarily in the European aesthetic traditions in the last quarter of the l9th century. Like the majority of American artists of the era, black artists sought acceptance by patterning their work on definitions of excellence and success by European cultural standards. Black artists of the era painted landscapes and still life, and depicted black men and women in middle class genre scenes - intimate portrayals of everyday life and people - despite being largely excluded from such a lifestyle. Landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister, who won the first prize medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition for Under the Oaks, is represented by two untitled landscape paintings. Henry O.Tanner's Gate at Tangier is an example of his critically acclaimed Orientalist style. Sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller's Pietà features black themes in traditional academic style, a prelude to the Harlem Renaissance in its celebration of the black physique. Excellence became a weapon for black artists to offset the racial stereotypes depicting them in white literature and art.
The works of sculptor Richmond Barthe and Augusta Savage, painters Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence and photographer James Van Der Zee richly illustrate the second exhibition theme - Emergence: The New Negro Movement and Definitions of Race in which subjects and concerns were first expressed in black terms. Artists embraced moments in black history, black depictions of traditional Christian figures and black success as entrepreneurs in the American Dream. Artists began to build black identities that would openly glory in a measure of difference from white American norms. New notions of early 20th century black identity began to embrace aspects of African heritage.
Jacob Lawrence's General Toussaint, a silkscreen of one of the 41 panels from Lawrence's Toussaint L'Ouverture series, depicts the black emancipator of Haiti from tyrannical Spanish and French rule. Lawrence's intent was to provide African Americans with a sense of pride, accomplishment and hope during an era when many blacks were experiencing political, economic and racial difficulties in 1938. Aaron Douglas incorporates political and social messages underscoring the grim reality of racism and economic hardship in Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South. Douglas combined Egyptian, West and Central African motifs, art deco elements and stylized black features into his signature style. Douglas' Go Down Earth depicts the Angel of Death riding down on a winged horse from the heavens to carry Sister Caroline from a life of pain into the arms of Jesus. The social and political events of the Harlem Renaissance, fueled by the rise of the black urban middle class, is captured in the photography of James Van Der Zee. Couple in Raccoon Coats is a quintessential image of Jazz Age Harlem.
Section three, The Black Academy: Teachers, Mentors and Institutional Patronage illustrates how black individuals and institutions, ranging from the black YMCAs to fraternal organizations, churches and colleges, continued to provide support and exhibition outlets for black artists through the Depression and subsequent World War II years. Artist/educators such as Lois Mailou Jones, James V. Herring and James A. Porter were important in developing both academic and commercial aspects of African American art. Herring, who founded the Howard University Art Department in 1922, also opened the Barnett-Aden Gallery in 1943, dedicated to the collection, preservation and exhibition of African American art. His Campus Landscape in the exhibition is an impressionist painting of students at the reservoir on Howard University's campus. David Driskell's Boy With Birds, is a social realist painting in which the use of light and color reveal a sense of beauty in the otherwise tragic street life of children.
African American artists continued to develop their own visual style. The black American expatriate, William H. Johnson, was a prolific artist greatly influenced by Expressionism. Upon returning to America in 1938, Johnson adapted a "primitive" style typified by bright colors and simplified, heavily outlined forms as seen in Children Playing London Bridge.
By mid century, African American art reflected the increasingly aggressive political agenda of the civil rights movement as well as the rebellion against the cultural mores accepted as the norm by both white and black artists. Work by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Melvin Edwards, Jacob Lawrence and Charles White combined original techniques with outspoken social commentary in section four - Radical Politics, Protest and Art.
Melvin Edwards' Sippi Eye, from his Lynch Fragment Series, uses welded steel forms that evoke the shapes of farm implements, weapons and shackles of bondage to visually invoke the horrors of lynching, the controlling tool of racism. Romare Bearden adapted collage as a medium to use figurative art to more clearly articulate the black experience. Bearden's Urban Street Scene addresses the various forces that compete for control of the urban streets. Elizabeth Catlett created some of the most visually compelling expressions of black political sentiment. Catlett's The Black Woman Speaks expresses the concerns of black feminists, often counseled by male colleagues to subordinate their issues in favor of the larger struggle. Artists such as John Biggers and James Phillips began assimilating African and Afro-Caribbean cultural references and designs in their work.
The exhibition's final and largest section, Diaspora Identities/GlobalArts represents the contemporary interest in more global perspectives of what it means to be of African descent. Ideas about what constituted "black art" began to be debated and expand, as did a growing interest in a broader consideration of other cultures of African descent. The term "diaspora studies" began to appear, suggesting the possibilities of cultural commonalities and perspectives among black people in varying geographical locations. As abstraction overtook realism in popularity, the question became how would African American abstract artists continue to express identity without a narrative element?
The shift to a belief that the artist should not be bound by dogma or fashion emerged in the work of Beauford Delaney's Untitled and Norman Lewis' Good Morning and The Red Umbrella, which embraced principles of abstraction in exploring color, texture and form with little or no textual framework. Representational and abstract elements were combined by Sam Gilliam in The D series, in which the canvas is a three dimensional conversation with paint and the enigmatic hint of subject with the inclusion of a single letter.
Identification also shifted as images of African Americans in television and music videos challenged historic notions. Yvonne Tucker's The Potter's House affirms many facets of the creative process as well as issues of partnership, family, communal creation and appropriation of legacies not normally considered part of the black cultural experience (in this case, her Asian heritage).
"African American artists have embraced a wide range of media and practices from European painting and sculpture to Caribbean religious artifacts and installations," wrote exhibition curator Juanita Marie Holland in the accompanying catalogue. "All the varied combinations, whether based in African, European or other cultures, are all expressions of contemporary African American identity. These transitional explorations of diaspora identity mark both the beginning of fresh perspectives and the continuation of a dialogue that has been going on since Africans were first brought to America."
The Mint will offer a lecture by David Driskell entitled, A Growing Legacy: Collecting African American Art, on Aug. 25, at 3pm in the Van Every Forum at the Mint. The history of collecting African American art encompasses a wide range of cultural motivations, from the political agenda of 19th century abolitionists to the establishment of an identifiable racial art style and aesthetic as called for by W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke in the 1920s to the affirmation of self by individual collectors today. Works from David Driskell's collection have been part of dozens of exhibitions throughout the country and will serve as a study collection for the University of Maryland's David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora.
For more information check our NC Institutional Gallery listings, call the museum at 704/337-2000 or on the web at (mintmuseum.org).
Mailing Address: Carolina Arts, P.O. Drawer
427, Bonneau, SC 29431
Telephone, Answering Machine and FAX: 843/825-3408
Subscriptions are available for $18 a year.
is published monthly by Shoestring
Publishing Company, a subsidiary of PSMG, Inc.
Copyright© 2002 by PSMG, Inc., which published Charleston Arts from July 1987 - Dec. 1994 and South Carolina Arts from Jan. 1995 - Dec. 1996. It also publishes Carolina Arts Online, Copyright© 2002 by PSMG, Inc. All rights reserved by PSMG, Inc. or by the authors of articles. Reproduction or use without written permission is strictly prohibited. Carolina Arts is available throughout North & South Carolina.