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Two faces can be seen in the frame of Tony Gleaton’s photograph, “Hija Negra/Flor Blanca/Black Girl/White Flower (Mango Creek, Belize).” In the first, the deep, soulful gaze of a young, black woman with striking features and captivating eyes, is offset by a large white flower. The viewer is stunned by her beauty and captivated by her intensity. In the second, the reflection of the viewer’s own two eyes in the glass. This second set of eyes falls squarely on the first, and though it reflects this intense longing, this complex set of emotions so raw it evokes a welling up in the viewer, it recognizes the dissonance in the two experiences; the undeniable lack of commonality, and yet, a rich empathy that cannot be ignored. Herein lies the large draw for the current special exhibition at the Hunter Museum of American Art, on display from February 14 – May 25: The ability to create empathy despite a large chasm in shared experience between the subject and the viewer.
In another photograph, “Fort Scott, Kansas,” (1950), Gordon Parks gives the viewer a glimpse of a well-pressed gentleman at a bar, eyes downcast, fingering a lit cigarette, with a deep resignation in his gaze as well as his stature. He leans into the bar and soaks in the trouble of his day, attempting to wash it away in the two drinks sitting on the bar behind him. His face tells the story of men and women spanning generations, not only of African Americans in the 1950s, but of people of all ethnicities, backgrounds and unique hardships over the course of time. This longing is familiar, and it doesn’t require a truly shared experience, but creates a feeling of kinship and relativity.
“African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond,” a collection organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presents the paintings, sculpture, prints and photography from 43 African American artists. These works reflect the ever-changing experience of African Americans, from the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights era to the rich cultural landscape and heritage of Africa. They draw on a heritage unique to the artists and their subjects, yet their humanity is universally shared.
In John Biggers’ “Shotgun, Third Ward #1 (1966),” children play in the street, as their parents focus on or shield their faces from the church as it burns in the distance. It’s striking in its dichotomy; the sweeping red paint that draws attention to the distress of this town and yet, the continuation and resilience of life in the eyes of the children. While it is a scene steeped in history, it is also a scene with great poignancy in its reflection of the human spirit. It exposes the strength and resilience of a people in turmoil and yet, does not shy away from their equivalent fragility. They are a community like any other; dealing with the fight of their time and place.
“What makes this exhibition relevant to our community is that it addresses social concerns still present throughout the country, and at the same time, celebrates many of the major artistic achievements of the last 60 years in American art, regardless of race,” said Nandini Makrandi, chief curator at the Hunter Museum of American Art.
These works feature scenes of not only the African American experience, but of the American experience as a whole. It is not an exhibit that points solely to a moment in time, but rather glimpses of the rich complexity of life through the lens of African American eyes over the span of many eras.
“This exhibition allows us to understand profound change through the eyes of artists,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “These works by African American artists are vital to understanding the complex American experience.”
This exhibition is unique, not only in its scope and subject matter, but in its sheer size and prestige. “A Smithsonian exhibition is huge in and of itself,” said Hannah Legg, director of communications at the Hunter, “and it’s a huge opportunity for the community. It’s a traveling exhibit, so even if you went to D.C. you wouldn’t be able to see it.”
A typical special exhibition consists of a small group of pieces, but this one boasts nearly a hundred, selected entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of African American art, giving museum patrons a great depth of work to enjoy. More than half of the works featured are being exhibited by the museum for the first time, including paintings by Benny Andrews, Loïs Mailou Jones and Jacob Lawrence, as well as photographs by Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks and Marilyn Nance. Several of the artists in this exhibition also have works in the Hunter Museum’s permanent collection, such as Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews, Thornton Dial, Sam Gilliam, wRichard Hunt and Loïs Mailou Jones.
Collectively these pieces write a profound story of despair, humility, struggle, resilience, family and joy. “Visitors will be struck not only by the power of these artworks, but also by the variety of the pieces on display,” said Mecklenburg. “So many new movements and styles grew out of the tumult of the 20th century, and these works reflect that diversity.”
Tony Gleaton once described his art, saying, “My work examines our common elements and the disparities, which in making us different, also bind us together in the human condition.” Passing by stirring paintings of homeless gentlemen gathered around a fire, sharing in its warmth; no-named faces in a crowd in Penn Station all attempting to find their way; a segregated bar unequal in its service but not in its patrons’ motivations; a family of sharecroppers in a beautiful and upright state, despite clear fatigue; a photograph of a young father shielding his daughter in his coat, an American flag tucked behind his ear; and rounding on the two eyes in the deeply pigmented skin of Gleaton’s young girl. Her eyes give way to the thread that ties these pieces together.
This history, depicted in these works, is not simply there to be remembered by those who struggled through the hardships, but by all who are touched by the events of a shared past and of a shared humanity. This is an exhibition of the American experience, and should not be overlooked.
Art + Issues: Civil Rights, Wrongs, Judgments and Justifications
February 27 | 6 p.m.
Marcus Ellsworth, spoken-word artist, president of Tennessee Valley Pride and host of Wide Open Floor each month at Barking Legs, will explore civil rights movements in the black and LGBT communities historically and today.
Art + Issues: Diversity Is! Now Deal With It?
March 20 | 6 p.m.
Art + Issues will explore the ways we understand and engage with diversity in our community with UTC professors Dr. Bart Weathington, UC Foundation Professor in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and Dr. Brian O’Leary, Department Head and Associate Professor of Psychology.
Art Wise: Distinguished Speakers at the Hunter Museum presents
March 27 | 6 p.m.
The Hunter welcomes Smithsonian American Art Museum Chief Curator Virginia Mecklenburg. Mecklenburg, one of the curators of the current exhibition.
The Word, the Sound and the Image: Meditations on “Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond”
April 10 | 6 p.m.
Join musician, DJ and spoken-word poet Christian Collier and other local performers as they bring the paintings in the special exhibition to new meaning and life, performing on themes that travel from the past to the present, from the paintings to the living soul.
Sound and Image: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights and Beyond
May 1 | 6 p.m.
Join UTC Adjunct Professor of Saxophone Clint Schmitt and Hunter curators as they explore the music and visions expressed in the current special exhibition “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond.”
Theatrequest: Performances of Harlem Renaissance Civil Rights and Beyond
May 22 | 6 p.m.
For this year’s installation of audience favorite Theaterquest, talented teen playwrights and actors will perform original works inspired by the Hunter’s exhibit.