Learning from Exhibitions: Ancestry and Innovation: African-American Art from the American Folk Art Museum

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Learning from Exhibitions: Ancestry and Innovation: African-American Art from the American Folk Art Museum


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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