African American art moves beyond black and white; collectors, curators and galleries are embracing a greater diversity of genres and styles in African American art while other artists move toward a `post-black’ art which cannot be defined in terms of race – Special Report – Industry Overview
In this new century, art collectors and dealers have come to recognize that there isn’t one monolithic African American school of art. Artists of African descent, just as all artists do, choose creative expressions that reflect their individual artistic, social and intellectual concerns. African American artists today explore their heritage, their culture and art itself in a wide variety of art forms and media, as they always have.
“There is no such thing as Black Art,” declared Josh Wainwright, rather ironically, since he produces the annual National Black Fine Art Show, scheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 2 in New York. This expo, with 40-plus participating dealers exhibiting more than 400 artists, has become the primary showcase in the United States for African American art, as well as contemporary African and Caribbean art.
More and more, Wainwright observed, the art market “is focused on the quality of the work itself, not the style. Afro-centric imagery is becoming less important in African American art. But getting exposure is still what’s difficult for African American artists. By far, the majority collectors of art by African Americans are still African Americans, though that is beginning to change.”
Today, said Wainwright, there is heightened interest among art cognoscenti in several discreet, distinctive areas of African American art, including: African American photography; vernacular art with an untrained, Southern aesthetic; abstract, non-narrative, non-objective art by African American artists; and cutting-edge works that are defined by not being defined as African American art–in shorthand, Post-Black art. At the same time, greater attention is being paid now to works and artists of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s which advanced the idea that African American artists should affirm and take pride in their own cultural identity. Each of these categories recently have been marked by well-attended traveling art exhibitions, shows at commercial fine art galleries and increased collecting, according to art dealers and curators.
Black Arts Movement Experiences Revival
Today, Black Arts Movement artists have been the subject of several current retrospective exhibits, including “Beyond the Fixed Star: The Art of Murray DePillars” at the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Va., in mid-2002. DePillars, the retired dean of art at Virginia Commonwealth University, is still an active member of the collaborative art movement AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), which was established in Chicago in the 1960s. In 1967, a small band of African American artists got out paintbrushes and covered the wall of a dilapidated Southside Chicago building with portraits of Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Muhammad Ali, Thelonius Monk and W.E.B. DuBois. They called the mural, “The Wall of Respect.”
The central tenets of AfriCobra include black pride, the goal of making art accessible to the black community, social responsibility and the development of a strong African identity in Diaspora. The artists’ styles run from abstract to expressionist to figurative, but they tend to use luminescent, vibrant Kool-Aid colors, elaborate orchestral symmetry, syncopated patterning and positive imagery.
“AfriCobra was really considered on the cutting edge of political art and on the cutting edge of gaining proprietorship over the black image in art. We were trying to get away from the stereotypic imagery of romantic primitivism in African American art,” DePillars said. DePillars’ own work today remains very much in this vein. His intellectual paintings are rooted both in Africa and America, exploring the strong design elements of traditional African textiles and sculpture in their use of patterns and saturated yellows, reds, blues, pinks, greens and black.
“The AfriCobra artists collective in particular are really experiencing an increased visibility of their work,” observed Robert Bane, co-owner of Brenda Joysmith Gallery in Memphis, Tenn. The gallery is also mounting a show of DePillars’ work in January, and plans to bring examples to the Black Art Show in New York. AfriCobra co-founder Jeff Donaldson was the featured guest at Chicago’s Humanities Festival in November. Wadsworth Jarrell, another AfriCobra founding artist, was featured in “A Shared Ideology,” a special exhibit on view during the Atlanta Olympics.
Although other Black Art groups dissolved years ago, AfriCobra has continued to meet to this day. “We are the longest standing group of artists in the history of art in America,” asserted DePillars. “The mainstream simply never paid attention to it.” It’s time to now, added Juliette Harris, editor of the International Review of African American Art, “These artists are now mature artists, and it’s time to reflect,” she said.
Focusing On African American Photography
“Photography has become extremely important,” said Wainwright. Many galleries now exhibit contemporary photographs and photo-based art by African American artists.
The stylistic range of this work is broad, and the content is not always overtly African American. For example, Philadelphia photographer Ron Tarver, who exhibits at the Sande Webster Gallery in Philadelphia and the Monique Goldstrom Gallery in New York, depicts the city and its architecture cloaked in mist and in an ethereal light. Long exposure times blur the details in these scenes, which are mysteriously devoid of people.
But many contemporary African American fine art photographers do use the medium to examine and redefine concepts of race. Lorna Simpson combines images and text in her narrative yet enigmatic photographs, which address racism, slavery and other African American experiences in the United States. Carrie Mae Weems also references the African and African American experience in her photography. At last year’s National Black Fine Art Show, several art dealers (including Brenda Joysmith Gallery of Memphis) exhibited her oversized photographs, including Weems’ famed “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” depicting a Congolese woman with headdress and bare breasts.
Weems, Simpson and Tarver, whose works will all be on view again this year at the Black Fine Art Show, are among the artists included in the Smithsonian’s seminal traveling exhibition, “Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography,” organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions. The three-part exhibition explores how African Americans have embraced photography to communicate social dignity. It features an assemblage of more than 300 images by 120 photographers working from the 19th century until the present day.
Southern Vernacular Takes Root
Another traveling retrospective exhibition is introducing American audiences to an equally significant aspect of African American art: Southern vernacular. “Testimony: Vernacular Art of the American South” draws from the collection of Ron Shelp and was organized by Exhibitions International, New York ,and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. The exhibit of 80 works by 24 self-taught African American artists working in the Deep South has already bowed at locations around the country and has plans for expansion in the works.
“When we started working on this project four years ago, it was difficult to place, difficult to articulate,” recalled curator Osana Urbay. “Now that has changed, and there is a great deal of interest in this work.”
“Testimony” explores the cultural roots of African American vernacular art and how it was shaped by slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, spiritualism and African heritage. “Prior to this moment, this type of work was all lumped together under the title `Outsider Art.’ But these works are not quite that, and these are not quite folk art, either,” said Urbay. “They are self-taught, and some of the works are decorative. But a lot of them have profound meanings–spiritual meanings–to them.”
Shelp, a New York-based collector, added. “This work is very moving … and art dealers are beginning to sell this kind of work.”
A Boom in Abstract Art
On the opposite end of the art spectrum, collectors and dealers are also focusing on highly intellectual abstract works, exemplified, perhaps, by the swell of interest in the artist Sam Gilliam. Gilliam is known primarily as a Color School painter who “liberated” the canvas from its stretcher.
Gilliam has also experimented with printmaking throughout his career, making prints with handmade paper and pulp, dyes and paints, and utilizing collage, stitching, silk-screening and embossing techniques. His recent works at Tandem Press, an atelier in Madison, Wisc., are printed on wood veneer, which are then collaged onto Rives paper.
Gilliam is certainly not the only African America abstract artist, although, said Harris of the International Review, “African American art has always tended toward the figurative. Today, though, many African American artists are exploring more avenues. They are experimental. They are exploring conceptual art [and] incorporating new media into their work.”
Post-Black Art Comes of Age
Indeed, said Harris, some contemporary African American artists are moving away from an art that is filled with African American imagery and content. “There has been tremendous media attention to [Studio Museum of Harlem curator] Thelma Golden’s notion of a `Post-Black’ school of work,” Harris noted. “It signaled an entirely different direction that African American artists are moving past issues of race. They are still interested in the experience, but they are interpreting it in a different way. Their lifestyles are increasingly global, and their work reflects that.”
Golden described Post-Black as art that is “characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as `black artists,’ though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness. They are both post-Basquiat and post-Biggie. They embrace the dichotomies of high and low, inside and outside, tradition and innovation, with a great ease and facility.”
Golden’s essay appeared as the introduction to the Studio Museum’s seminal “Freestyle” show, which attempted to identify current creative trends and a new generation of emerging African American artists whose work was only bound together in a free-style “unbridled expression of self.” Included in the exhibition were artists like Simpson, Weems, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, who has done sophisticated and stylized cut-outs depicting the slave experience, and Odil Donald Odita, who merges 1950s-style abstraction with African aesthetics.
Some of today’s work by African American artists displays what one art dealer calls “an African American drum to beat,” and some does not. For example, artist James Brantley creates constructed, not-quite-abstract landscapes with exuberant colors. And many of these artists are trying to leave their “African American” label behind. The Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, which deals in artists of all racial backgrounds, represents Lorna Simpson. The gallery itself, said associate Amy Gotzler, focuses on the cutting edge. “We have 17 artists, and they are from everywhere–Brazil, Africa, this country. The defining characteristic is: the work is smart. It tends to be intellectual and to have a pretty minimal aesthetic.”
Sande Webster in Philadelphia and Greg Kucera in Seattle are two other U.S. art dealers who include the work of white and black artists on their rosters of exhibits. When she opened her gallery, however, Webster said, “I was told I couldn’t have black and white artists together in a gallery. I would lose both audiences. It wasn’t true. And most people think that most African American artists make very Afro-Centric work. That isn’t necessarily true either. They are doing abstractions and photography and landscapes. It’s about being an artist first.”
For his part, said Kucera, “I never set out to have a white gallery, or a black gallery. We show African American artists as we find work that interests us.” Over the past few years, Kucera has exhibited Walker, Kerry Marshall, Robert Colescott and Robert Traylor, plus a group show of “Life in Black America.” Kucera added, “Nobody is truly colorblind. I may not care whether an artist is black, white or purple, but I notice. Still, I think there is a sea of change. I see a trend in collectors, museums and galleries accepting African American artists’ work for itself. The trend is not in the artists themselves. It’s the beginning of their acceptance into mainstream that should be in the news.”
The trouble is, said some observers, when African American art is celebrated it is also marginalized. “As an artist and writer, I have always felt that African Americans spend too much time recognizing, and thus legitimizing, the so-called difference we have come to expect in the art of the black and white races,” David C. Driskell, author of The Other Side of Color, said.
Artist Maurice Evans of Lawrenceville, Ga., is inclined to agree. “I’ve been approached by a lot of art publishers who say, `We want more African American art’ Well, I do abstract art, and I do photography. But they only ask me about my jazz paintings. I say, `I have these other images that you should look at, that I think are pretty strong.’ But they don’t have African American figurative content.”
Evans added, “It depends on how you look at it. Sometimes the mainstream wants to categorize a certain kind of art almost to make it a lesser kind of art.”
Make no mistake, Evans is pleased to be published by companies like Image Conscious, a Bay Area publisher of several limited editions by the artist. “Publishers can expose you to audiences you didn’t have before. I don’t have a problem being labeled an African American artist. But personally, when I go to buy art, the last thing on my mind is what color the artist is.
“Some African American artists don’t want to be considered African American artists. They are not ashamed of being black. They just don’t want to be boxed in. I’ve never met an African American artist who wasn’t proud. He is always painting his experience. African American artists always have, and always will have, a great contribution to make to art.”
AFRICAN AMERICAN ART RESOURCES
* Antiquarian Tribal Expressions, (212) 343-0311
* Art In Motion, 800-663-1308
* Artjazz Gallery, (215) 922-4800
* ArtOrg.org, 800-882-7090
* Cupps of Chicago, 800-732-2877
* Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, (626) 577-0044
* Image Conscious, 800-532-2333
* Joysmith Gallery, (901) 543-3199
* National Black Fine Art Show, (301) 263-9314
* Paloma Editions,(619) 671-0153
* Sande Webster Gallery, (215) 732-8850
* Tandem Press, (608) 263-3437
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