Sunday 25th June 2017,

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African American Artists Tackle Issues of Race, Gender, and the Economy

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African American Artists Tackle Issues of Race, Gender, and the Economy

Purple Delight, a mixed media art made from buttons, beads, and antique frame by Amalia Amaki, is one of the works by African American artists on display at the Georgia Museum of Art.

ART REVIEW

African American artists shine in an exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art that expands scholarship on artists of color who, until recent years, were overlooked.

BY KAZAD

Image:  De Good Book Says (Church Scene), an oil on canvas by Wilmer Jennings, is one of the works by African American artists on display at the Georgia Museum of Art

Wilmer Jennings, De Good Book Says (Church Scene), 1935. Oil on canvas 30 1/4 x 24 inches. Image: Georgia Museum of Art

ATHENS, GEORGIA -A new exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia presents an opportunity to appreciate the works of African American artists. Titled Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection, the show expands scholarship on artists of color who, until recent years, have been overlooked.

Expanding Tradition includes exceptional works by contemporary artists like Willie Cole, Whitfield Lovell, Kevin Cole and Kara Walker as well as historical artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Charles Sebree, Beauford Delaney and Benny Andrews.  The exhibition also includes rare Depression-era works by Norman Lewis, Charles White, Dox Thrash and Rose Piper.

The almost 60 works on display range from the late 19th century to the contemporary era.  They provide a comprehensive look at African American art history with particular focus on race, gender, class, politics and the economy.

Purple Delight, 2005 by Amalia Amaki is one of the outstanding works on display at this show. The mixed media work made from white, silver, gold buttons, beads, and an antique frame has the portrait of an African American woman. With head raised high, and well -articulated makeup, the woman shows off her magnificent beauty.  She seems to be saying “Look at me. I am beautiful.”

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Purple Delight reflects Amalia Amaki determination to capture the lives of African American women of the Diaspora through her art. Amaki has an M.A. degree in modern European and American art and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American art and culture from Emory University in the Institute of Liberal Arts. In her work, she combines everyday material, including photography, quilts, buttons, boxes and other household items to examine the depiction of African American heroines and heroes in mainstream media. Purple Delight accentuates her quest to re/present celebrated African American in a better light.

Willie Cole’s Untitled (Chicken), 1995 shows the innovation that has become synonymous with this sculptor, painter, and conceptual visual artist.   Created from women’s shoes and galvanized wire, Untitled (Chicken),   is an important example of how Cole combines everyday objects to create powerful works of art and statements about everyday life. The sculpture is shaped like a chicken.

In addition to achieving an interesting aesthetic, Untitled (Chicken), 1995, seems to address the issue of consumerism. Why would anyone need so many shoes? However, more importantly, it shows how the artist continues to borrow from different artistic traditions like Dada’s readymade, surrealism, and pop art to articulate innovative artistic thoughts.  For him, anything can be turned to art: hair dryers, lawn jockeys, high-heeled shoes, ironing boards, and irons.

Wilmer Jennings De Good Book Says is an important painting with historical significance.  Painted in 1935, the painting depicts a church scene, with the pastor preaching to a congregation of men and women, who seemed elevated in a spiritual ecstasy.

De Good Book Says is a reminder that 1935 was an important time for African Americans: Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP had successfully argued the landmark case in Murray v. Pearson. It was agreed that   Maryland should open admissions to the segregated University of Maryland School of Law based on equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Segregation and lynchings were still prevalent. The Great Depression only made matters worse.  For many African American’s the church was a place of solitude and refuge.

In De Good Book Says, Wilmer Jennings takes viewers into that church, where African Americans were able to freely express themselves. There was singing, chanting and vivid expression of spirituality.  In the painting, rays of light burst through the stained glass window illuminating the congregation. While some people raised their hands in the air, others bowed their heads in prayers. De Good Book Says is an important piece by the artist, who was well-known as a printmaker.

Expanding Tradition is the inaugural exhibition for Shawnya Harris, the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art.   For this exhibition, she selected from the 100 works of art by African Americans artists donated by the Thompsons to the Georgia Museum of Art in 2012.  The donation came on the heels of a traveling exhibition drawn from their collection titled Tradition Redefined: The Larry and Brenda Thompson Collection of African American Art.   Expanding Tradition is a follow up that exhibition.

ART NEWS | READ ALSO: Georgia Museum Of Art Hires Shawnya Harris As Curator

Expanding Tradition and Tradition Redefined are important exhibitions that have helped advanced scholarship on works by African American artists. Above all, they show the commitment of Larry and Brenda Thompson to illuminate the contribution of African American artists to the development of art in the United States.   With an extensive private collection of works by African American artists, there is great hope that important works by African American artists who have been ignored for decades, until recently, will make it to the public space.

Image: Untitled (Chicken), a sculpture made from Women's shoes and galvanized wire by Willie Cole, is one of the works by African American artists on display at the Georgia Museum of Art

Willie Cole, Untitled (Chicken),1995. Women’s shoes and galvanized wire 14 3/4 x 22 7/8 x 9 7/8 inches. Image Georgia Museum of Art

Image:  Open Window Series V, a Serigraph by Mildred Thompson, is one of the works by African American artists on display at the Georgia Museum of Art

Mildred Thompson, Open Window Series V, 1977. Serigraph 24 x 21 inches. Image Georgia Museum

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