'Songs' is a moving exhibit but it feels incomplete

December 22, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

"Songs of My People" at the Baltimore Museum of Art is all right as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. It's only part of something, and looks it.

In 1990, the Washington-based nonprofit group New African Visions sent 53 African-American photo-journalists across the country to record African-American life in the United States. The aim was to counter the stereotypes too often seen in the news, and present African-American life in all its variety and vitality. The result is "Songs of My People," an exhibit of 150 photographs and an accompanying book of about 200. The show opened at Washington's Corcoran Gallery in early 1992 and has traveled nationally and internationally.

There are two versions of the show, the original and a smaller version, which includes 55 photographs -- just over a third of the original. The BMA has the smaller version.

They are good photographs, they are moving photographs, and they offer variety of geography and subject matter -- taking us from Baltimore to Los Angeles to Petal, Miss., from family life to professional life to recreation and sports, from great achievers to ordinary people.

There are portraits of photographer Gordon Parks, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, musician Miles Davis and artist Jacob Lawrence; but there are also coal miner James Shelton Jr. of Pike County, Ky., and brass-band drummer Milford Dolliole of New Orleans. There is Beatrice Fergerson of Washington, mastering the hula hoop at 97, and the birth of a baby to Vincent and Donna Reynolds in Silver Spring. There's tennis great Zina Garrison, and there's the unnamed, backyard horseshoes player registering his delight with a ringer. There are those in the corridors of power like Colin Powell, dancing with Barbara Bush; and those on the street, like Joyce Knight and her 2-year-old grandson, Jamal, begging near a Washington subway entrance while Joyce's husband looks for work.

But the case of the Knights is a good example of what's wrong with this smaller version of the show. The book contains six photos of the Knights; they form a short essay that gives at least a little of the lives of this family. In the BMA show, there's only the single image of Joyce and her grandson, which, though forceful, lacks the depth of the essay.

This happens in case after case, twice to the detriment of subjects from our area. The book's five-photo essay on the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Catonsville has been reduced to one image; a four-photo series on Walker Robinson, neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, has also been reduced to one image. The result is a show that feels incomplete even if you haven't seen the book, and especially if you have.

To be fair, there were not as many photos in the original show as in the book (but there were three fourths as many instead of one fourth). A copy of the book is provided in the show, so you can page through it if you're so inclined. And Jan Howard, the BMA's associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, says the museum tried to get the full show for more than a year without success before deciding to take the short version.

None of that alters the fact that the short version, though nice enough, cannot be more than a fraction as effective as the long one.

ART REVIEW

What: "Songs of My People -- African Americans: A Self-Portrait"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive, near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The exhibit runs through April 3.

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18, free Thursdays

Call: (410) 396-7100

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