Through artists’ eyes Exhibit focuses on African-American perspectives

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal



American history with an African-American perspective is on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.
A new exhibit features 40 works from renowned artists, who used their talents to interpret the world around them.
“If you come see the exhibit, it will not only make a visual impression,” said Kimberly Jacobs, Gallery 1 director for Jackson State University. “You’ll also have knowledge of moments in history.”
“The Plotters” by Archibald J. Motley Jr. illustrates Jacobs’ point. It features black men having a discussion around a table. They’re smoking cigarettes or cigars, a bottle of wine is on the table, and an image of two men boxing is framed behind them.
“I love this,” said Julian Rankin, public relations coordinator for the museum.
“This blue just pops out,” Jacobs said.
“It’s almost like a hologram,” Rankin said.
“Nineteen-thirty-nine,” Jacobs said. “It really depicts a time.”
The exhibit is on loan from the collection of Savannah, Ga., resident Walter O. Evans. He started collecting in the early 1970s because he wanted to expose his children to African-American art.
The exhibit will be on display at the museum until June 24. It’s a joint project of the museum and Jackson State University, which also features work from Evans’ collection. All 60 pieces of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” will be on display until June 24 at JSU’s Johnson Hall Art Gallery.
Migration and its effects are at the heart of the 40 pieces at the museum, too. Jacobs said much of the work comes out of the Harlem Renaissance in New York.
“The Renaissance wouldn’t have happened if not for that migration of African-Americans who went from the South to the Northeast,” Jacobs said. “Definitely, there’s a Southern story at its roots.”
The exhibit reminds Jacobs of a quote by Mississippi writer Richard Wright: “So, in leaving, I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps to bloom.”
Three centuries
Most of the art is from the 20th and 21st centuries, but pieces by 19th century artists Edward Mitchell Bannister, Robert Scott Duncanson and Mary Edmonia Lewis are on display.
“The earliest collectors didn’t know these were done by African-Americans,” Jacobs said. “The artists stayed in the background.”
Lewis’ marble sculptures have a classic feel, and the pastoral movement is on full display in work by Bannister and Duncanson.
Into the 20th century, artists felt more freedom to pull from their own experiences, as well as from the lives of those around them.
Jacobs’ favorite piece is “Woman Worker” by Charles White.
“It’s my favorite because of the look in her eyes. The eyes stand out, and that slump in her shoulders,” Jacobs said. “She’s had a hard day, but there’s still a smile, like she’s about to tell you how her day went. The facial expression, the eyes, bring it all together. It just speaks to me.”
Jacob Lawrence’s “Ices I” is a triumph of color, movement and enthusiasm as children gather around a vendor for a cool treat.
“It’s fun, isn’t it? It just looks fun,” Jacobs said, “but there’s some guy who looks kind of suspicious back there.”
Horace Pippin’s “Victory Garden” tells a story that would be familiar to blacks and whites from the World War II generation. The self-taught artist positioned a woman in a chair while she sews. Red, white and blue flowers grow beside her, and a white picket fence runs behind her. It’s a slice of Americana that tells an instantly recognizable story.
Rankin said, “Dr. Evans likes to say it’s not a collection of African-American art. It is a collection of American art, and that’s what it is.”
In 1945, Lois Mailou Jones painted a view from the harbor of Martha’s Vineyard, with sailboats bobbing in the water. It’s not a scene someone might immediately connect to an African-American artist.
“Clearly,” Jacobs said, “she was there, enjoying that time, that moment, that place, and she captured it.”
The exhibit includes “Little Maple,” an abstract piece by Tupelo native Sam Gilliam. Now based in Washington, D.C., Gilliam won a 2007 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Gilliam’s work and that of the other artists has been featured in exhibitions at some of the world’s most important museums. The current exhibit is valued at $14 million.
“These really are modern American masters,” Jacobs said.
If you stroll along the artists’ unique windows into other times and places, Jacobs said, “you’ll understand history better – American history, not just African-American history.”
And something you see might stir the soul.
scott.morris@journalinc.com