Half a century of African American art comes to the Valley: ‘Black Refractions’ exhibit at Smith College Museum of Art

  • Chris Page listens as Connie Choi, the curator of “Black Refractions” at Smith College Museum of Art, gives a tour of the new exhibit of African-American art from The Studio Museum in Harlem. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Mother And Child,” a 1993 wooden sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, is part of an exhibit of African-American art now on view at the Smith College Museum of Art. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Choi, at right, the curator of “Black Refractions,” leads a tour of the exhibit, which includes “Incognito,” a lifelike prop used by installation artist and fillmmaker Isaac Julien in a 2003 film. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Visitors at SCMA walk past “River,” a 30-foot scupture by Marren Hassinger of entwined heavy rope and steel chain that is designed to evoke both the appeal of nature and America’s history of slavery. Photo by Carol Lollis. Design by Nicole J. Chotain.

  • “Incognito” is a lifelike model of the actor and director Melvin Van Peebles, used by filmmaker and installation artist Isaac Julien in his 2003 film “Baltimore,” which was in part a pastiche of the “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Connie Choi, the curator of the SCMA show, discusses what she calls ones of the most iconic pieces from The Studio Museum of Harlem: “Lawdy Mama,” a 1969 painting by Barkley L. Hendricks. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Mother And Child,” a wooden sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett from 1993, part of “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem,” now on display at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Nwantinti” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2012. Acrylic, pastel, charcoal, colored pencil, and Xerox transfers on paper. She is a Nigerian-American artist whose work examines the intersections of race. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence),” an oil on canvas painting from 2001 by Kehinde Wiley, who in 2018 painted a portrait of former President Barack Obama that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Echoes of Harlem,” handpainted cotton quilt by Faith Ringgold, 1980. The artist worked with her mother, a Harlem clothing designer, to create the quilt. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Harlem, U.S.A. (A Man in Bowler Hat),” 1976 photo by Dawoud Bey.  Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • “how i got over,” acrylic painting on canvas by Henry Taylor, 2011. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Kevin the Kiteman,” oil on canvas painting by Jordan Casteel, 2016. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2020 9:22:26 AM

You don’t have to be a student of American history to know the 1960s was a tumultuous decade. And right at the heart of the tumult was the civil rights movement and the demand by African Americans for equality in U.S. society. Add in the assassinations of black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the violence waged by whites in the South against black civil rights protestors and the disproportionate number of black soldiers sent to Vietnam, and you had a recipe for growing African American anger.

Amid this turmoil, artists, community activists and others envisioned another way to advance the cause of African Americans. In 1968, they created The Studio Museum in Harlem as a place where artists from the African diaspora, who had historically been shut out of most museums and exhibition spaces in the U.S., could find a place to show their work and experiment with new ideas.

Just past its 50th anniversary, the museum has created a traveling exhibition, “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem,” that offers a broad look at a diverse body of work — nearly 100 paintings, mixed media pieces, photographs, fabric art, sculpture and more — that has passed through or found a permanent home in the New York City facility. Seeing the exhibit, which is presented roughly chronologically, also offers a story about the trajectory of black artists and their work over half a century, especially as it showcases early work by artists who have now gone on to greater notoriety.

“Black Refractions” is making its only Northeast appearance at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), where it will run through April 12. SCMA officials say it’s an honor to host the show, especially as 2020 marks a significant anniversary: As the SCMA website states, “the museum we appreciate today — where our community connects with art, ideas and each other — was set in motion 100 years ago.”

It’s a fascinating exhibit, staged in collaboration with the American Federation of the Arts, in part because The Studio Museum, according to Connie Choi, curator of “Black Refractions,” was not initially envisioned as a collecting museum, but rather as a venue for experimental work by younger black artists in particular.

“But the museum generated so much interest and enthusiasm that by 1970 it started being gifted many new pieces of art,” Choi said last week during an opening tour of the SCMA show, which she conducted with Emma Chubb, SCMA’s contemporary art curator. “So now,” Choi added, “we have over 2,500 pieces.”

About 16 years ago, The Studio Museum also developed an official mission statement that declared the museum to be a “nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally” as well as a place to showcase work “that has been inspired and influenced by black culture.” As such, the exhibit features work by artists from Africa, the Caribbean, England and other locales — some of these artists now live in the U.S. — and some pieces speak directly to the experience of African Americans.

One of the most striking pieces, for instance, is the roughly 30-foot “River” by Maren Hassinger, a sinuous sculpture of entwined heavy rope and steel chains. It’s wound across the floor of one of two large gallery spaces at SCMA dedicated to the exhibit, offering a striking counterpoint to the artworks on the walls. The chains can’t help but evoke the history of slavery in the U.S., as well as the infamous Middle Passage, in which enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas beginning in the late 16th century.

But the title also speaks to Hassinger’s interest in the environment — she grew up in the post-World War II boom in southern California but attended Bennington College in Vermont — as the artist considers nature “a means to unify humanity,” as exhibit notes put it.

Painter Kehinde Wiley has gained fame in recent years for his unique portraits — including one he did in 2018 of former President Barack Obama, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian — in which he sets black and brown men against unusual backgrounds. In “Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence),” which he painted in 2001 as a graduate student in art, he offers a large (6 x 6 feet) portrait of a black man, wearing a suit and tie, against a simple, open background of light blue. But the man’s hair flows from his head in dark currents that swirl across large sections of the canvas, symbolically “claiming space … from which black artists are often excluded,” according to exhibit notes.

Kehinde, like many other artists whose work is featured in “Black Refractions,” once was an artist in residence at The Studio Museum, and Choi says that program has been both a key component of the museum’s history — “It’s given opportunities to a lot of artists to try out new work, and for people to see that” — and a means for helping launch those artists to greater success and exposure.

“It’s very exciting and pleasing to us to have some of this earlier work by artists who now have these amazing careers,” she said.

History — and a sense of humor

Some of the earliest work in the exhibit dates to the late 1920s, including photographs by James VanDerZee, a Massachusetts native (he was born in Lenox in 1886) who became one of the most sought-after photographers during the Harlem Renaissance. VanDerZee, who was also a musician, captured images of Harlem jazz bands of the era, street life and other scenes. One of his photos in the show, “On the Town,” shows a nattily dressed man in a white jacket and pants, a bow tie and a black fedora, with a cane in his gloved hands. He looks pleased with himself — or is he striking an ironic pose?

Also offering a sense of humor is “Incognito,” an amazingly lifelike model, made of plaster, foam, plastic, paint and human hair, of Melvin Van Peebles, a director and actor from the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s. The model was used as a prop in the 2003 film “Baltimore” by British filmmaker and installation artist Isaac Julien; the movie was part pastiche of blaxploitation movies, part offbeat allegory about race and class. In the film, shot in 16 mm, Van Peebles traverses different parts of Baltimore and encounters a replica of himself in a wax museum. What follows is a kind of comical standoff.

“You’ll always kind of see this guy out of the corner of your eye as you’re walking around this part of the gallery,” said Choi. “He looks so real — it’s a little creepy.”

On a more serious note, though also not without a sense of ironic humor, is “Atlas,” a 1995 mixed media piece by New York artist Fred Wilson in which a ceramic figurine of a bending black waiter, wearing a white jacket, holds a serving platter on his shoulder — but instead of food or drinks, he’s carrying a giant globe festooned with dozens and dozens of black pushpins, all of them marking black populations worldwide (most are in Africa, the United States, and Central America) and “transforming the servile waiter into a symbol of the African diaspora,” as an accompanying catalog to the exhibit puts it.

Wilson’s work has often used these kinds of figurines and other repurposed historical objects to offer commentary on the way racist stereotypes persist in different walks of life, according to the catalog, thereby “bringing into focus that which has always been there: the foundational violence of modernity and its institutions.”

Choi says one part of the exhibit is called “Their Own Harlem,” in which works that represent the spirit of Harlem are grouped, including the colorful paintings of Jacob Lawrence, who Choi said came to Harlem in 1930 at age 12; he was inspired by the area’s vitality, spirit and artwork to take up art himself. Lawrence, who would go on to become the first African American artist to be represented by a major commercial gallery, “wanted people to have an experience like he did,” said Choi. “To him, Harlem was an idea, not just a specific space.”

Faith Ringgold, a mixed media sculptor, painter and performance artist who’s now 89, embodies some of that spirit in her 1980 work “Echoes of Harlem,” a beautiful quilt measuring about 6½ by 7½ feet on which she painted the faces of 36 people, all tilted at different angles. The sense of community the work inspires — Ringgold herself was born and grew up in Harlem — is also emphasized by the fact that the artist made “Echoes of Harlem” in part with her mother, Willi Posey, a Harlem clothing designer.

Amid work that speaks to the struggles African Americans have had through history, there are also explorations of the current intersections of race and nationality. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, born in Nigeria in 1983 and now living in Los Angeles, won a MacArthur Fellowship, the “Genius Grant,” in 2017 and now sells her paintings for millions. Her 2012 work “Nwantinti,” of paint, pastel, charcoal, and colored pencil, also uses photo transfers in which many images from the artist’s past in Nigeria form a mosaic on the canvas.

The portrait is an intimate one, in which Crosby’s husband, Justin, a white American man, lies across their bed, his head in her lap, as she sits looking pensively at him, one hand on his head. It’s both a tender moment and a serious one, as the couple look into each other eyes and seem to consider all the tensions and challenges that their cross-racial and cross-national union must deal with.

Choi says the SCMA version of “Black Refractions” is the fourth showing of the artworks, which began last year with an opening in San Francisco. Each one has been a little different, reflecting the varying sizes of the galleries and the need to limit certain works on paper to e xposure to light, she noted. The exhibits have not been specifically linked the The Studio Museum’s 50th anniversary but have coincided with the museum’s move to temporary quarters as it prepares to move into a new building.

“ This gives us a chance to get some of the most evocative work in our collection into circulation and give people around the country a chance to see it,” she said. “For us, that’s what really important — to share the work that’s been created and shown [in Harlem] for over 50 years.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Black Refractions” is on view at the Smith College Museum of Art through April 12. For more information on visiting the museum, go to scma.smith.edu.

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