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Narratives of African American Art and Identity: 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 of art."
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 Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art, August 24, 2002 through October 27, 2002. It is a collection well worth another look. The exhibition is a companion exhibition to Charlotte's Own: Romare Bearden (see below). (right: Aaron Douglas, Idyll of Deep South)

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 October 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. (left: Edward M. Bannister, Untitled Landscape)

Narratives of African-American Art and Identity thematically begins with artists working primarily in the European aesthetic traditions in the last quarter of the 19th 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. (left: Richmond Barthe, Head of a Dancer)

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 American 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/Global Arts 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."


Charlotte's Own - Romare Bearden

August 24 - October 27, 2002

The singular style of Charlotte-born artist Romare Bearden is easily the most widely recognized among African American artists of the 20th century. Charlotte's Own - Romare Bearden, on display August 24 through October 27, 2002 at the Mint Museum of Art, marks the third time the museum is featuring his work.

While the greatest influence on Bearden's art was growing up in the exhilarating circle of intellectuals, community leaders, artists and musicians that his family was actively involved with in Harlem, Charlotte's claim of Romare Bearden as native son is evident in two of the artist's collage series, Mecklenburg County and Blues.

Romare Bearden was born on South Graham Street in Charlotte's Third Ward in 1912. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was eight years-old and again to Harlem in his early teens. But his Charlotte ties continued with summer visits up to the death of his great-grandmother Rosa Kennedy in 1925. Bearden's childhood memories of the rituals of family life and the influence of blues and gospel spirituals indigenous to the segregated South proved fertile ground that the artist visually explored in his work.

"This exhibition, featuring works from area private and corporate collections, is a natural follow-up to our previous two Bearden shows," stated Charles L. Mo, Mint Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions. "The selection provides a rich visual opportunity to announce the museum's desire to build a repository of Romare Bearden art."

The museum's best known Bearden work, Carolina Shout, originally was part of the exhibition Romare Bearden 1970-1980, organized for a national tour by then Mint curator Jerald Melberg as a follow-up to the 1971 retrospective exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art. Romare Bearden in Black and White: The Photomontage Project of 1964, exhibited at the museum in 1998, provided insight to the artist's earliest use of collage.

The majority of works displayed in Charlotte's Own - Romare Bearden will be his signature collages. During the 1940s Bearden painted linear abstract, figural works inspired by the Bible, Greek myth and literature. His work was selected for group exhibitions at the Whitney Annuals and State Department traveling exhibits in Europe and South America.

A love of music nearly put an end to his painting career. Returning from studies at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950, Bearden elected to compose instead of paint. Music, conditioned by the blues idiom in general and jazz musicianship in particular, was his first love and a significant influence in his life. It was not until the mid 1950s that Romare returned to painting, inspired by Matisse's bright Cubist compositions and the abstract expressionist style. It would still be another decade before Bearden began to work in collage, employing a mixed media style that made his indelible mark in American art history. While the modern art world embraced abstraction, Romare Bearden adopted collage as a medium in which fragments of the life he witnessed as a New York City social worker could be incorporated in a narrative form that so resoundingly hit a responsive chord among all people.


Read this magazine's prior articles on this national tour:

(9/5/08 note: Google Video contains a 81 min. video from the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art: David Driskell - An Introspective Art Account: Personal Entitlement October 10, 2007. Distinguished scholar and curator David Driskell is cited as one of the world's leading authorities on the subject of African American Art. He currently holds the title of Distinguished University Professor of Art, Emeritus, at the University of Maryland, College Park. Upon his retirement from the University of Maryland in 1998, The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora was founded to promote his scholarship and service to the University. Driskell is the recipient of ten honorary doctoral degrees in art, and has authored numerous books, essays, and catalogues including Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, published in 1998. In 1997, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton. A highly regarded artist working in collage and mixed media, Driskell has exhibited his work in museums and galleries worldwide. Text courtesy Google Video) More Info on the Smithsonian American Art Museum Site: http://AmericanArt.si.edu/collections/clarice_smith/david_driskell.cfm?siref=GoogleVideo&Video=2007Driskell

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Mint Museum of Art / Mint Museum of Craft+Design in Resource Library.

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