Conversation in modern art
Peabody Essex Museum Features African American artists with new exhibit
Susan Saccoccia | 7/17/2013, 12:06 p.m.
The pleasures of art and its power to bear witness animate the exhibition of African American art on display through September 2 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Entitled “In Conversation: Modern African American Art,” this vibrant sampling of a century’s worth of art presents more than 100 paintings, photographs and sculpture by 43 African American artists who came of age between the early 1900s and the late 1990s.
The artists and their works span the decades that encompass the Great Migration, in which generations of black families moved from the rural South to northern industrial cities; the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s; and the struggles for civil rights that gained momentum in the 1960s.
Accompanied by a lustrous catalog, “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond,” this traveling exhibition debuted last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and draws from its collection of African American art, the largest in the country.
Many of the artists on view bear witness to their times, while some craft abstract images with little reference to place or race.
But in most pieces, a visual language emerges informed by the influence of such figures as Alain Locke (1886-1954), the visionary leader of the Harlem Renaissance who exhorted black artists to rediscover their African heritage. Colors and patterns from Africa pervade many of the paintings and sculptures along with imagery of the rural South, as well as urban icons of factories and tenements and modernist trends in European and American art.
Presenting the works as both art and testimonials of their eras, the exhibition includes recorded interviews and wall text quotations from figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, Ice Cube, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, John Coltrane and Sidney Bechet.
Organized into three galleries, the exhibition invites visitors to discover connections among these artists and works. Coordinated by PEM curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the installation juxtaposes paintings by renowned artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence with equally captivating works by lesser-known artists.
Setting the exploratory tone is Renee Stout’s evocative installation, “The Colonel’s Cabinet” (1991-1994), at the entrance to the first gallery. A stage set for an armchair traveler contemplating life in distant colonies, Stout’s work places a chair and carpet before a wonder cabinet, a collection of curiosities that was popular in the 17th century. On its shelves are jars of oddities from exotic lands and a lute-like African instrument.
Many works celebrate the resilience and beauty of black women young and old. Boston-born Sargent Johnson’s elegant copper bust, “Mask” (1930-1935) is a timeless image as is “Blackberry Woman” (1932) by Richmond Barthé of Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. Barthé’s bronze is a slender, elongated form evoking the figures of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Both artists were inspired by African statuary.
Like many African Americans of his time, Benny Andrews inhabited two worlds. Raised in a family of Georgia sharecroppers, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill. His collage “Portrait of Black Madonna” (1987) employs spare geometric shapes while incorporating homespun, everyday fabrics, venerated like relics.