The names make an art lover’s heart beat faster — Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Willie Cole, Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Jacob Lawrence, Bill Traylor, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Carrie May Weems, and Lorna Simpson. Some of the greatest names in American art happen to belong to African Americans. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an impressive number of holdings by these and other African American artists, whose names might not be as well known but whose achievements are equally significant. A selection of 50 artists from the collection is on view through Sunday, April 5, in “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art.”
“In telling a story that spans two centuries, we recognize not only a great many important artists and their work, but also the dramatic shifts that have occurred in African American life during this period,” says PMA director and CEO Timothy Rub. The exhibition coincides with Black History Month and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement.
The PMA was the first major American museum to acquire a work by an African American artist. Tanner’s painting “The Annunciation” entered the collection in 1899. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Tanner moved to Paris in 1891, where the opportunities for an artist of color were greater. Exhibited in the 1898 Paris Salon, “The Annunciation” was painted after a trip to Egypt and Palestine.
“Represent” begins with fine and decorative arts made by freed and enslaved artists before the Civil War. According to exhibition materials, African American artists and crafts practitioners were often trained by slaveholders in painting, pottery, metalwork, or cabinetry and once freed operated their own studios and shops. “The rare surviving examples of their work represent the determination and vision they showed in the face of racist expectations,” says a wall text. There is a finely wrought grandfather clock in walnut and other woods, brass, iron, steel, and glass with a Chippendale top.
There is a series of silhouettes by Moses Williams, who was enslaved by Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale. Peale was a painter, soldier, scientist, inventor, politician, and naturalist known for his portraits of leaders of the American Revolution, and for his cabinet of curiosities, both of which he painted into a self-portrait that is prominently displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts, which he founded. Peale trained Williams in silhouette cutting and taxidermy. Williams’ silhouettes represent the members of the Peale family.
Peale freed Williams when he was in his 20s, and Williams began receiving payment for his work as a silhouette cutter and taxidermist.
By the 1900s education and exhibition opportunities increased for African Americans. The exhibition’s main focus is on modern and contemporary art, rendered in bold colors and compositions. Also included are outsider artists who had little access to formal training or conventional materials.
African American art evolved much as most American art, from realism and craft to abstraction, conceptual and contemporary art. But African American art has always had its own voice. It is not a genre, but a body of work by a group of people who share the legacy of being displaced from their ancestral land and is intertwined with the story of race in America.
Horace Pippin, who lived near Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania, fought for his country in World War II, suffering a wounded arm in combat. He took up painting and wood carving as therapy. “The End of the War: Starting Home” shows African American soldiers attacking German soldiers, framed by carved weapons, helmets, and tanks. It is a quintessential American victory painting.
Martin Luther King Jr. is, not surprisingly, an icon for many African American artists. Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) carved a wooden portrait of the civil rights leader with an angel rising from behind his head.
Other heroes are James Baldwin (painted by Beauford Delaney), Ray Charles (by Chuckie Williams), and Langston Hughes (by Aaron Douglas). Then there is “Miss T,” painted by Barkley L. Hendricks. Miss T is not Angela Davis, but she sports her Afro, black clothing, aviator glasses, and look of confidence, a self-assured vision of African American womanhood.
Like Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems performs in her own photographs, showing us African American herstory. Here she is a woman at a table with a man absorbed in his newspaper, seemingly oblivious to her as she smokes a cigarette and waits for him in the shadow.
Willie Cole’s “Reversed Evidence” is a grid of 12 scorched iron prints, with squiggles of fiber resembling African American hair, all within a peeling painted window frame. Newark-born, Morris County resident Cole uses the common household tool to show the history of enslavement and servitude. The iron marks recall the work of thousands of African American women who worked as domestic laborers. They also evoke the marks left by a hot branding iron.
There are sculptures by Martin Puryear and Barbara Chase-Riboud, quilts by Faith Ringgold and Sarah Mary Taylor (who made a version of this quilt for the 1985 film “The Color Purple”), and an encaustic by Moe Brooker. Influenced by improvisational jazz and urban graffiti, Brooker creates visual rhythms with bold colors and dynamic lines.
A nice touch is a section of the gallery where visitors can sit and listen to recordings of the artists speaking. Joyce Scott says she doesn’t want to be tethered by a medium, a preacher, a pundit, or a politician, but to be a human being adding to the conversation. Jerry Pinkney says he needed a tall tale of color, and found it in John Henry, who represents triumph over segregation. Moe Brooker recalls his grandmother talking about the joy deep inside on overcoming oppression.
“Where are the black people?” asks John E. Dowell Jr. “I’m here. I’m presenting an idea or concept loaded from different areas. I’m trying to make an artistic statement.”
The timing was just right for the exhibition, proposed by the African American Collections Committee. Organizing curator John Vick’s role was to bring together consulting curator and catalog author/editor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, and the American, Modern, Contemporary, Prints and Drawings, Costumes and Textiles, and Education departments, under the guidance and support of the African American Collections Committee. “To bring everyone to consensus,” he says.
Whether to make political art or to express something felt inside is always an individual decision, regardless of race. “This exhibition and catalog show that the decision to make political or social commentary is a personal decision and varies from artist to artist,” says Vick. “Some of the artists shown here make art about their own life or the broader African American experience, sometimes with a positive lift, other times more provocative. There are plenty for whom representation of race or portrayal of biographical information or the African American experience is not a priority or explicit in the work. We see a range. Artists are individuals, will have their own take on something, and make work that shows they think in their own way.”
There are no preferred media. “Artists are drawn to one medium or another because of individual interests or limited resources,” continues Vick. “Skin color is not a factor in these decisions. The influential Jacob Lawrence — born in Atlantic City — made a lot of works on paper because it was less expensive than canvas, but he was a very successful artist with a strong following. Choice of media is more an aesthetic decision.”
About 20 of the artists here were either born and raised in Philadelphia or studied at one of its many art institutions. “Philadelphia has always had a tradition of arts and culture, with wonderful museums and art schools,” says Vick. “We like to think PMA and the Barnes provide an opportunity to cultivate the arts. Artistic culture is available to all Philadelphians, and the museum tries to support area artists.”
Represent: 200 Years of African American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Through Sunday, April 5. $14 to $20. Wednesday, March 25, performance by poet, performer, and scholar Tracie Morris. www.philamuseum.org.