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Soul! Art from the National Afro-American Museum

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger
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May 2nd 2009 – February 28, 2010 at The Ohio Historical Center

Soul!, an exhibition currently on display at the Ohio Historical Center, provides the chance to view over 100 works of art selected from  the Ohio Historical Society’s National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, OH.

The exhibit boasts paintings and sculpture by such renowned artists as Betye Saar, Richmond Barthe’, and Willis “Bing” Davis.

Now, if you’ve never heard of those artists, I expect you’re not alone. Galleries and museums have not traditionally embraced the opportunity to represent and promote African American artists. Even today there is evidence of this. In a recent blog entry on “Modern Art Notes”, Tyler Green takes the National Gallery of Art to task for its lack of minority and women artists on display. Summarizing the situation Green explains “The issue isn’t the need for some kind of enlightened multiculturalism, the issue is that the NGA’s portrayal of ‘American art’ is a fiction: Art in America has not been made by only white people, nor has it been made only by men.”

In this context then, kudos to the Ohio Historical Center and the Afro-American Museum for arranging “Soul!”. It’s a show worth having and a show worth seeing; and not just because it balances the cultural scales or rights some societal wrong, but because it debunks the fiction Tyler Green describes and offers the chance to appreciate talented artists whose work might otherwise go unrecognized.

The works themselves are drawn mostly from the 20th Century. There’s a small etching (Kneeling Slave) by Patrick Reason that dates from 1835, but nearly everything else on view was created post-1940. Painting makes up the bulk of the exhibit, though there is a fair amount of sculpture and multi-media work as well. According to Floyd Thomas of the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center, “This exhibition was conceived to be not so much a history of African American art as one that would develop visitors’ interest in looking at and understanding art and in gaining an insight into the African American experience and creative genius.”

This intent comes through loud and clear. There are depictions of struggles, conflict, identity, and defiance. Images of hope and pride are displayed side-by-side with those of subjugation and pain. Considering the time frame much of this work was created in, it’s not surprising that a fair amount is socially charged. Cop, by Benny Andrews offers a decidedly non-Rockwellesque view of the police, while Freedom Now by Reginald Gammon depicts the civil rights struggle in a manner that is both immediate and unequivocal.

The theme of music and dance is tackled in many of the works on display, from Claude Clark’s In the Groove to Calvin Burnett’s We Danced, We Drummed for Freedom. What’s striking is that these depictions are so vibrant and affirmative. There’s an energy that’s undeniable. In these works, dancing, singing, and playing are more than just the rote acts of a performance; they become a way of asserting oneself, of making a mark, or having one’s say. Humor plays a role as well, sometimes ironically and sometimes subversively. Betye Saar’s Let Me Entertain You is a triptych of sorts, offering a tongue in cheek look at the evolution of African Americans, from clownish minstrel to threatening militant. Similarly, with a pitch-perfect sense of the absurd, sculptor Michael Smith’s Bondage II uses the traditional and folksy carved chain and ball in a cage motif to simultaneously crown and enslave an African figure.

This narrative approach to the exhibition (one that emphasizes storytelling and experiences) does create an interesting outcome though, and maybe one that doesn’t completely represent the breadth of African American art. Nearly all the works on display are representational (much of it stylized, but representational nonetheless). Untitled, by Victor Matthews and Lines from Countee Cullen stand as two of only a handful of works that cross over to the abstract. Visitors taking this exhibit at face value might be left to assume that abstraction was not part of “the African American experience and creative genius” (though I expect Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Norman Lewis, and a number of others would disagree). Perhaps it’s simply the case that abstraction – while arguably part of the African American experience – doesn’t function as well to illustrate that experience.

Still, that caveat aside, “Soul!” is worth the trip. It presents a powerful mixture of history and art that reminds us there’s a host of expressions and experiences beyond those we’re normally exposed to. Opening ourselves to both serves to raise our awareness and provide a more complete picture of the world we share.

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

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