Black Art Bound by Thread of Identity

Article excerpt

REMEMBER the tempest last year at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, about the painting called "Natural Rhythm: Thank You Jan van Eyck"? The picture is a contemporary parody of van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Wedding." In it, the bride's black and pregnant and the groom is white.

The painting was removed from view last summer after some members of the UMSL community complained that it was offensive, a reinforcement of racial stereotypes, perhaps racist.

However, it was rehung after others in the university community pointed out that the painting's intent had been misunderstood. Furthermore, removing the painting amounted to censorship, which should be an anathema in a college community dedicated to freedom of expression and searching for truth.

UMSL wisely decided that rather than just bluff its way through and hope that the dust would settle, it would strike up discussions on freedom of expression and respect for cultural diversity.

As part of that effort, the school brought Edmund Barry Gaither to town recently to talk about the way African-Americans have chosen to present themselves in their art since the late 18th century.

Gaither is director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, Mass., and is a special consultant and adjunct curator at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1970 he organized for the MFA the first large, serious exhibition of art exclusively by African-Americans.

He has continued to organize shows and he has taught at Harvard and Wellesley and Boston University. And under his direction the NCAAA museum has grown from an idea to an institution with a regular schedule of exhibitions, research and education programs, its own collection, and publications, when there's money. The museum is the oldest non-university-based African-American art institution.

Gaither was born and reared in South Carolina and remembers being interested in art as a child.

"When I was a little boy my brothers and I had a world of drawn characters." He said that he found that drawing and image-making could communicate as language cannot.

He did his undergraduate work at Morehouse College in Atlanta. But in graduate school, at Brown University, he concluded that his work would be to tell about art, not to make it.

What he told the group at UMSL the other day was about the ways that African-American artists - from the early days of the republic to the time of contemporary artists such as Robert Colescott and Floyd Coleman - searched for identity in their work. He made it clear that this search and this art is not monolithic, any more than the African-American community is.

He went back 200 years. He talked about a tendency throughout the 19th century to avoid making things look "black." Distinctive facial features were ignored. Artists of exceptional talent such as the Canadian-born artist Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901) painted figures in lush, Barbizonesque landscapes - but they were seen at such great distances that their features were too small to be observed.

Edmonia Lewis - daughter of a free African-American and a Chippewa and also known as Wildfire - studied at Oberlin College but ended up in Rome, where she was in the circle of Hiram Powers and Harriett Hosmer. She sculptured figures that were idealized rather than realized. She was born in 1843 and died sometime after 1911; no one knows exactly when.

Gaither said that in the first half of this century there was a "stark reversal" of this tendency to obscure features. What he calls "Negro Renaissance" art was obsessed with the black physiognomy, and prominent facial features were expressed with great pride and conviction.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was the first black to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; one of his teachers was Thomas Eakins. …