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
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
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
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. …