JONTYLE THERESA ROBINSON
RECENTLY, I visited Spelman's former Sculpture Building, the old power plant, to determine if any sculpture or relics from the past still remained. 1 In 1939, the brick building had been remodeled into an attractive, well-lighted studio and exhibition space for Professor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and her students. The 6,375 square foot, slate-roof structure has an open, spacious quality, but there were no sculptures or relics to be found. 2 What I did find was an underground passageway that connects Spelman College to Atlanta University, part of a network of tunnels that spreads throughout the Atlanta University Center and from which all AUC schools receive steam. While standing in front of this tunnel passageway in Prophet's old studio and gallery space, obvious metaphors came to mind. The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman came first. More important, however, was the connection between the first exhibition, "Forever Free," in 1981, and this exhibition of contemporary African American women's art at Spelman College. This network of passageways reflects the diversity of ideas, experiences, and paths of the women in the exhibition.
The urgency of "Bearing Witness" cannot be over- emphasized. In four years a new century will begin. This exhibition of contemporary African American women artists is not an historical exhibit, nor is it a retrospective. As the century closes, "Bearing Witness" informs us about the present and portends the future.
Explaining the traditional African use of the term "art" may reveal how the works in this exhibition give evidence to, authenticate, and certify the lives of African Americans. The traditional African presupposition is that "art" is not separate from life. It is an integral part of the social structure; it is functional and utilitarian. Therefore the art in this exhibition combines the two spectacular meanings suggested by the African scholar V. Y. Mudimbe. 3 Although Dr. Mudimbe was speaking about traditional African art, his ideas can be applied to contemporary works. In contributing to the cultural legacy that stretches back thousands of years in Africa, it is critical that African beliefs be used as a reference point for the women and their works in this exhibition. Thus, we acknowledge that these works have a primary utilitarian and functional purpose, but also that ". . . in their materiality . . . all of these objects speak (to those who can really understand) and remind them of the continuity of a tradition and its successive transformations." 4 They are "memoriae loci, places of memory." 5 Mudimbe is referring to memory as it relates to the Greek martyr, which connotes witness. The works in this exhibition become "windows" through which the artists and onlookers can observe the passing of the old century and the beginning of a new millennium.
Born in 1926, Betye Saar epitomizes the rationale for this exhibit. There is an active witness, a place of memory in her work Watching ( 1995). Sister Saar has created her work on a recycled, decorative furnace grate. Saar, who started creating assemblages after her three daughters were born, rarely searches for anything specific to use in her work, but goes by her intuition and waits for objects to beckon her. She probably acquired this furnace grate at a swap meet, antique shop, or junkyard. Its original purpose was to cover an aperture through which air, hot or cold, was received into a dwelling. In Watching, Saar has created a mixed media collage of paper, fabric, and acrylic paint on the flat side of the grate. 6 Peering out from behind the grate's floral latticework -- now a window grille -- is a "middle aged American woman