Art Review: Ohio Diaspora – Art from the Collection of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and Ohio Artists
I suppose we take our art where we can get it now. Whether it’s the Short North hosting a virtual Gallery Hop, the Wexner Center ramping up their “Off Center” initiatives, or the Columbus Museum of Art introducing the hashtag #myCMAathome, institutions and arts advocates continue to adapt to the stay at home world by making art as accessible as possible with the tools they have.
As for me, I’ve got some very good art on the photo roll of my phone. That’s because I was fortunate enough to get to the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery and take in Ohio Diaspora: Art from the Collection of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and Ohio Artists before the world began its pandemic-induced shutdown. The show is stunning, and I’ve found myself going back to the pictures I took again and again.
Ohio Diaspora brings together works by 17 Ohio artists with ties to African American culture. Many of the artists are represented in the collection of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. All present something of themselves and the world they live in, and all present valuable perspectives on both art and history.
Works by Willis “Bing” Davis and Queen Brooks take cues from traditional African patterns, textiles, and abstractions while also incorporating some contemporary flourishes. This duality serves to create a connective tissue between the past and present. Davis takes that connection a step further. By referring to his works as “dance masks,” he suggests that the beliefs and traditions of his African ancestors can still provide meaning and purpose in today’s world.
Tariq Tarey offers a slightly different perspective on the African American experience. As a photographer, immigrant, and immigration advocate himself, Tarey’s work in Ohio Diaspora reflects the life he’s lived. His photographs of contemporary immigrants utilize the techniques and style of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century portraiture. The results are powerful images that serve as poignant reminders that the United States was, and remains, a nation of immigrants.
Another perspective on the experience and history of African Americans is presented by Tracy Ameen. Her clay and ceramic “Mammy pot” figures stand as a point of pride for the artist, who refers to black women as the “midwife to this great country.” In some respects, she may be right. It’s hard to imagine better advocates for freedom (or better standard-bearers for freedom) than those who have worked the hardest to gain it.
As Ameen and Tarey’s work might suggest, Ohio Diaspora offers a fair amount of figurative work. It’s a show that’s curated to connect and engage on a personal level. Striking representations of African Americans abound. In the hands of April Sunami these representations take on a timeless, ethereal quality. For Lisa McLymont the representation of African Americans offers a chance to depict strength and hope with warm naturalism. For Ron Anderson, the figure presents the opportunity to contemplate the connections and relationships between people. Taken in total, the works here illustrate that while the experiences of African Americans are varied, those experiences remain and integral part of our shared history.
In that context, Ohio Diaspora is a timely reminder for all that it’s one thing to have a story, and another thing to have that story told and heard and shared. Ohio Diaspora does that. It gives voice and visibility to a group of exceptional artists, and in so doing, brings to the fore the stories, experience, and connections that shape who we are and who we might become.
Fortunately these stories will continue to be told, heard and shared. Riffe Gallery Director Cat Sheridan notes that the Ohio Arts Council is working on a virtual gallery experience that will allow people to explore the exhibition remotely. Further, Sheridan reports they are also exploring the possibility of extending Ohio Diaspora once the Riffe Gallery re-opens. That would be welcome news. A show this personal deserves to be seen in person.
For more information about Ohio Diaspora: Art from the Collection of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and Ohio Artists, as well as a video introduction to the the exhibition, visit oac.ohio.gov/Riffe-Gallery/On-View.
Feature Image: (l) Willis “Bing” Davis (left) |A Warrior’s Prayer Dance Mask | 2018 | Found objects & Willis “Bing” Davis (right) | Urban Dance Mask #3 | 2018 | Found Objects // (r) Bruce Robinson (top) | Janus #2 | 2016 | Plywood, paint, found materials & Bruce Robinson (bottom) | Rhyme | 2017 | Plywood, paint, found materials