Now that we've inaugurated the first African-American president, and writers for major newspapers are throwing around terms like post-racial, why hold an exhibition of artwork exclusively by African-American artists? Each in Their Own Voice: African-American Artists in Cleveland, 1970-2005 unintentionally asks, and then answers, just that question.
A joint effort between the Cleveland Artists Foundation and Cleveland State University, this exhibit is a sequel to the 1996 show Yet We Still Rise: African-American Art in Cleveland, 1920-1970. Each in Their Own Voice features the work of 24 artists who have two things in common - they are all black, and they all have a connection to Cleveland. Some were born here; others worked or went to school here; some have lived in Cleveland their whole lives.
Despite the artists' race and ties to Cleveland, there is no overarching aesthetic. The artists - male and female, gay and straight - exhibit work ranging from abstraction to realism in a variety of media, including painting, ceramics, video, printmaking, and metal and woodworking. As passé as an exhibition of work by artists of a single race may seem, this show helps thwart persistent stereotypes about what African-American art should look like.
The title refers to both the process of curating the show and its oral history component. A community advisory panel selected the artists for the exhibition. CSU gallery director Robert Thurber said it was important not to have a group of white curators selecting black artists.
"I am not African American, and some of the organizers are not African American," he says. "We didn't want to have the appearance of imposing something on the African- American community that they didn't want. We wanted the African-American community to speak in their own voice."
The exhibition gives artists the chance to express themselves not only visually, but also through interviews conducted by the organizers. Transcripts appear on the wall alongside the art and in the exhibition catalog. Audio versions of the interviews will be available online. "We wanted to give the artists the chance to speak about their work, their art, their lives and the challenges they've faced," says Thurber. "We want to, in a sense, write history."
The artists speak about the challenges of being African American, and making and exhibiting art in Cleveland. They talk about being barred from galleries in Little Italy and how the juries of Cleveland Museum of Art's annual May Show consistently passed over black artists for prizes. One common theme popping up in more than one interview is the idea that viewers - both black and white - expect art by African Americans to look "black." "I was at a show up here in Cleveland, and I was told that my work wasn't 'black enough.' I didn't get that. By a black artist! Trying to pigeonhole me. My being a black artist - or an artist that happens to be black - my subject matter isn't dealing with my color in a way some people feel [it should,]" states participating artist Miller Horns in his interview. Each in their own work demonstrates that there is no black art look or subject matter. Some artists, such as Michelangelo Lovelace, take on highly charged themes like race relations and urban life. "Color Line" shows groups of black and white protesters crossing a road filled with baton-wielding cops to meet in the middle. "Trying to Survive in the Urban Jungle" shows an artist from behind, paintbrushes in his pockets, observing the cityscape before him.
Other works are pure abstraction, like Alfred Bright's "Art Blakey," a tribute to the jazz drummer. Thick smears of yellow, orange, green, white and red paint sit on top of a muted brown-gray background, while washes of blue drip down the bottom of the canvas.
Other standouts include Virgie Patton-Ezelle's "Com-pear'd to What?" - a painting of a voluptuous nude woman against a copper background. A pear and a snake appear at the woman's feet. Patton humorously subverts the common comparison of a women's body to fruit and riffs on the art-history tradition of depicting Eve with a serpent and an apple.
Johnny Coleman's "Seated Noble" is a wooden sculpture that resembles an old toolbox with chipping paint, sitting on a roughly hewn bench. What appears to be the handle end of a boat oar juts from the top of the toolbox. This odd mashup of different objects and kinds of wood with strikingly different finishes is unusually eye-catching. The title may be a reference to the sacred carved wooden stools traditionally used by West African leaders. The artist interviews give the show a feeling of community and provide viewers with an insight into the work they otherwise wouldn't have.
"There is a cultural experience of being an African-American artist in Cleveland," says Lauren Hansgen, interim director of the Cleveland Artists Foundation. "Being an artist in Cleveland, period."
Many artists in the exhibition have ties to each other. Ceramist Kevin Snipes mentions in his interview that painter Malcolm Brown, who is also in the show, taught him during junior-high school.
Exhibitions with a broad organizing theme, such as time span or geography, would gain perspective and momentum by adopting the approach used here. By focusing on historiography, the organizers of this show add another layer of significance.
Each In Their Own Voice: African-American Artists in Cleveland 1970-2005 Through March 7 Gallery talk and reception: 4 p.m., Friday, February 13 Cleveland State University Art Gallery 2307 Chester Ave. 216.687.2103
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