An exciting variety of artistic expressions by self-taught African-American artists from the urban North through the rural South is documented and explored in a stunning new traveling exhibition. Ancestry and Innovation: African-American Art from the American Folk Art Museum originally debuted at the American Folk Art Museum in 2005, opened at Reynolda House Museum of Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2008 and continues on a five-city national tour through 2009.
Selected from the vast collections of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, 39 paintings, sculptures, quilts and works on paper showcase the impressive holdings of this museum, while providing a sampling of the diversity of contemporary African-American folk art.
Since its founding in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been one of the nation's foremost resources for the study, collection, preservation and enjoyment of folk art. The museum is home to one of the world's preeminent collections of folk art dating from the 17th century to the present, including paintings, sculpture, photography, textiles, ceramics and other decorative arts, as well as the work of contemporary self-taught artists from this country and abroad. Indeed, as a specialty, the American Folk Art Museum has explored the creativity of African Americans through its exhibitions, collections and publications. Drawings, sculptures, paintings and quilts by black artists have become a vital part of the museum's holdings, and 20th-century and contemporary artists are represented through significant numbers of works.
Ancestry and Innovation includes paintings by an elder generation of creators, works by contemporary masters, and provocative pieces by emerging artists.
"The unique presentation of vibrant quilts in conjunction with sculpture and painting enriches the viewer's appreciation for the complexity and vitality of African-American expression," said Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum.
"This exhibition is an opportunity to showcase the range and depth of African-American artworks in the museum's collection," noted Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of The Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum.
Ancestry and Innovation was organized by the American Folk Art Museum, and is being circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition was made possible by the support of MetLife Foundation. The National Endowment for the Arts provided generous support to the American Folk Art Museum through its "American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius" initiative.
Lucinda Toomer (1888/1890-1983). Diamond Strip Quilt, c. 1975. Cotton corduroy, flannel, velvet and wool; 79.5" x 66.25". Collection of American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of William Arnett, 1990.7.1. Lucinda Toomer was raised on her family's farm in Georgia. In her later years she remembered childhood on the farm as a better time, when "everything people had, they made." She also recalled being awakened each night during her 12th year, when her mother would come into her room to teach her how to sew and quilt.
Toomer was conscious of the effects of color and placement in her quilts, remarking, "a strip divides so you can see plainer ... [R]ed shows up in a quilt better than anything else ... you can see red a long while."
Clementine Hunter (1886/1887-1988). Playing Cards, c. 1970. Oil on canvas board; 18" x 24". Collection of American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of the Mildred Hart Bailey/Clementine Hunter Art Trust 1996.1.2. Highly prolific and returning to preferred subject matter more than once, Hunter produced thousands of works over a 40-year career. No doubt her environment nurtured artistic ambitions. Hunter worked at Melrose Plantation from the age of 14 or 15, at first in the fields and later in the Big House. Melrose Plantation was owned by a patron of the arts and was a haven for artists and writers.
Inspired by her experiences, Hunter began her art-making career late in life with memory paintings, documenting her community at work, at play and at church. Simple forms and shapes crafted with dynamic, punchy color combinations identify the artist's canvases. Hunter worked with oil paint, watercolor and acrylic on artist board, as well as various found materials. She almost always approached her surface in the same way--a strip of color at the base of the composition to suggest the ground, and a swath of blue and white brushstrokes cresting the top to imply the sky. The main scene is sandwiched in between. Bold, flat coloration further eliminates depth and dimension. Despite this artistic strategy, the jaunty color and fat, voluptuous brushstrokes bring vibrant life to the subjects.
Willie LeRoy Elliot (b. 1943). The Last Frontier, c. 1988-1989. Mixed media on wood; 53" x 60" x 29". Collection of American Folk Art Museum, New York, Blanchard-Hill Collection. Gift of M. Anne Hill and Edward V. Blanchard Jr., 1998.10.21. Both functional and sculptural, this object by Elliot serves as a loveseat, side table and tray with primping mirror all at once. Constructed with salvaged wood painted vibrant red, yellow, white and blue, the main structure depicts a male figure with a snake slinking around his neck and becoming the arms of the figure. Elliot added plastic knives, rearview mirrors, broken glass, tiles, plastic, metal, masks and Popsicle sticks to enliven the artwork. This sculpture is based on a childhood memory. On his way to collect water from the family well, Elliot confronted a snake in his path. His grandfather killed the snake and protected him from harm. Believing the snake was deadly, the artist considers this a life-changing experience.
Thornton Dial Sr. (b. 1928). The Man Rode Past His Barn To Another New Day, 1994-1995. Oil and enamel on canvas with clothing, carpet, rope, wire and industrial sealing compound; 84" x 120" x 11.5". Collection of American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Jane Fonda, 2001.2.1. Thornton Dial Sr. is always "making things" and "making ideas." He has created a collection of paintings, assemblages, sculptures and works on paper greatly admired by the art world. The apparent parallels between his work and the work of artists involved in the academic arena have brought a remarkable level of critical recognition and success to someone not seeking it. Fully engaged in historical and societal issues, the artist is as much a part of the story as he is the storyteller. His work typically expresses his insights on topics ranging from the intimate to the communal, particularly racism and oppression in the United States. The art world's reception of the highly regarded Dial Sr. has encouraged his son, Thornton Dial Jr., and other men within his family to also explore art making.
Kevin Sampson (b. 1954). Mother Oatman, 2000. Mixed media; 26" x 23" x 9.5". Collection of American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler, 2000.7.2. Art-making became an act of healing for Kevin Sampson after the tragic deaths of his wife, a newborn son and a favorite cousin. Now a retired police officer living in Newark, N.J., Sampson collects ephemera and discarded objects from the streets and creates sculptural portraits or tributes to people The artist described his use of material this way: "I find whole lives in Dumpsters ... I make things to honor people who have been here."
This work is a portrait of Avada Oatman, the artist's best friend's grandmother and the wife of Bishop Oatman, from Elizabeth, N.J. Sampson grew up in Elizabeth and sang in the church choir The artist created this work to acknowledge his eider, who was a quiet and powerful presence during his childhood
Montgomery (Alabama) Museum of Fine Arts
January 31-April 12, 2009
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington
May 2-July 12, 2009
For related information and resources, go to artsandactivities.com and click on this button for a link to the exhibition Web site.
Mark M. Johnson is Director of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala., and a Contributing Editor for Arts & Activities.…