Artists' Works Find 'Common Ground'

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 11, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Artists' Works Find 'Common Ground'


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


When most of us hear the word Appalachia a certain image comes to mind.

An exhibit on display at the August Wilson Center, Downtown, not only reminds us that we live in Appalachia, but also teaches a newly formed term, "Affrilachia."

"Affrilachia (af-ruh-LAY-shuh) is an emerging term that describes African Americans who live in the Appalachian region," says Cecile Shellman, artistic director of visual arts and exhibition initiatives at the center. "The term was coined by a poet from the South. His name is Frank X. Walker, and he is the founder of a group of poets who call themselves Affrilachian poets."

The exhibit, titled "Common Ground: Affrilachia! Where I'm From," features 46 works by 31 artists, not only from Western Pennsylvania but nearly the entire Appalachian region, stretching from southern New York to northern Georgia.

Shellman and Sharif Bey, professor of art from Syracuse University, were responsible for organizing the northern portion of the exhibit. Marie Cochran, an independent art curator and art professor working in North Carolina and Georgia on the Affrilachian Visual Art Project, was responsible for organizing the southern portion.

"That's why you'll find two different colored labels throughout the exhibit," Shellman says. "Some are pink, which represents artists from our region, and others are green, which were mostly from the South.

"We're not grappling for whose better, Pittsburgh-area artists or those outside of Pittsburgh," she says. "We're all a part of this common stretch of land, and it's about where we are from conceptually, artistically, emotionally and what we can produce. We can have this collaborative show, and you might not know where the artist is from, whether it be Pittsburgh or some little hollow deep down in Georgia somewhere."

Each of the works hold its own among what is a diverse mix of styles, mediums and modes of expression.

For example, works by Pittsburgh-area quilters Mayota Hill, Tina Brewer and Sandra K. German mix well among abstract sculptures by Christine Bethea and Vanessa German.

The Germans are related. Sandra German (the mother) makes the most elaborate allegorical quilts, and Vanessa (the daughter) displays assemblage sculptures that combine baby-doll parts with musical instruments.

"Vanessa's sculptures have fiddles for bodies to reference the music of the Appalachian region," Shellman says.

Where Vanessa German's baby-doll sculptures -- "Affrilachian Fiddle #1" and "Affrilachian Fiddle: Blues/Grass" -- are covered in beads, tiny toys and cockle shells, in similar fashion, Brewer and Sandra German's massive 8 1/2-foot-diameter skirt, titled "Gazelle," also is covered in beads and cockle shells.

Visitors may remember this skirt from the 2009 FashionAFRICANA Legacy Show at the center, and at the center's grand opening celebration that year, when a male model wore the piece and welcomed visitors to the center.

As arresting as that piece is, there are many more attention- grabbing works on display, most notably Willis (Bing) Davis' altar- like installation "Portable Shrine in Homage to the Middle Passage.

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