All 33 artists in the exhibition "African-American Art: Images of the Past, Present and Future" share African-American ancestry, but their wide-ranging styles and intentions beg the question: What is African-American art? There is no pat answer, though a panel of participating artists on opening night explored several important trends.
The most striking and prevalent thread running through the work is a concentrated attention to history; a palpable urge to remember, recreate, reinvent or recover. This makes a great deal of sense in a community whose familial and cultural legacies have repeatedly been obscured or obliterated through racism, segregation and slavery.
Some artists, particularly those self-taught, discussed the difficulty of becoming an artist in an indifferent or even hostile environment. After the panel, sculptor Bruce Ford said he was drawn to art as a child, but lacked artistic role models.
"I'm old country," said folk artist William H. Clarke, "raised up the hard way in the '50s. You had to work for nothing." He now makes it a point to encourage children to follow their dreams regardless of naysayers.
This emphasis on nurturing the next generation came up frequently during the evening's conversation. There is a persistent concern to look out for one's own, and an awareness that more needs to be done concerning race relations and class disparity.
The variety of approaches in the exhibition highlights differences as much as commonalities between African-American artists. Artist Philip Muzi Branch sees African-American art as a visual language with a distinctive, definable style.
"Our story as a people is not a pretty one, sometimes sad, even disturbing," Branch says. "We have to write and paint so people can understand." By perpetuating that stylistic heritage in his paintings Branch hopes to convey the African-American experience.
Several other artists, including Martha Jones-Carter, Kathryn Reid, and Jacklyn Casselle Tupponce, also integrate African or African-American motifs, though in a more fluid, personal way. Dawn Cherry, for example, uses a repetitive turtle motif taken from African symbols, but in her private cosmology the turtles have come to represent herself and her two children.
For several artists their African-American heritage is not their principal artistic motivation. Panel moderator Sylvio Lynch, who makes abstract mixed-media paintings, stresses the pleasure of working with materials, while jeweler Jay Sharpe is primarily interested in formal design. Printmaker Dennis Winston (also curator of the exhibition) is concerned with universals common to all humans and hopes everyone, regardless of ethnicity, can see their own stories in his work. The subject of Winston's woodcut print "Reflections II: USDA" may be an African-American man, "but it is universal," he says, "It's about hard-working people."
A number of artists approach their work as social reportage. John S. Greene Jr. creates dynamic three-dimensional urban scenes based on memories of his Richmond childhood. While William H. Clarke's folk art scenes grow out of his rural upbringing in Southside Virginia. Both artists bear loving witness to the African-American communities that surrounded them in their youth. Other artists, including Cheryl . Clayton, Unicia Buster and Stanley Rayfield make work reminiscent of social realism or protest art.
Some artists intermingle a complex stew of influences ranging from Native-American, Haitian, European and African artistic traditions to pop culture and mythology. These cultural hybrids by artists including Lydia Thompson, Vivian Lucas-Graves, Alex Bostic, S. Ross Brown and Murray DePillars complicate the cultural/ethnic dialogue in fascinating ways. In a country scarred by false dichotomies of white and black, their work reflects the startling complexity of our nation's culture and suggests interesting ways forward, both aesthetically and socially.
To understand the importance of this exhibition, it is critical to place it in the wider context of a culture still divided by and in denial about race. Consider George Allen's recent "macaca" comment or Delegate Frank Hargrove's baffling suggestion that African-Americans "get over" the brutal legacy of slavery and segregation; as if one could or should get over a legacy that still persists. It is significant that these comments come from white Virginians who assume racism and slavery are only a concern for African-Americans. In the end, this show is really about all of us, about our shared histories.
Virginia is a state riddled with past racial wounds. The self-reflection, historical excavation, and community dialogue provoked by these artists is surely an important tool for us to reckon with our thorny inheritance. S
"African-American Art" runs through March 16 at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center's Spotlight Gallery, 4901 Old Brook Rd. Call 646-3674 for more info.