A people's history, artfully celebrated Art preview: Talents and treasures of African-Americans showcased at Maryland Historical Society.

September 30, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It will probably surprise a lot of people to learn that the largest furniture manufacturing company in North Carolina before the Civil War was owned and operated by an African-American.

Also, that the world's first black Catholic religious community was started in Baltimore in 1829. And that the first American composer to become conductor of a European symphony orchestra was a black man from New Orleans.

These and many other revealing facts are brought to light in "A Celebration of African-American Decorative Arts, 1790-1930," opening at the Maryland Historical Society tomorrow.

Containing more than 150 objects, this is a decorative arts show and more. Aside from furniture, ceramics, textiles, metalwork and other objects of domestic use, it contains paintings, prints and photographs. It's also filled with information on African-American culture and its contributions to American culture, from the earliest years of the republic until well into the 20th century.

The show's two parts bring together national and local approaches to the subject. "Sankofa" presents a selection of works from the collection of African-American objects owned by Derrick Joshua Beard, a Chicago native living in Atlanta. The

collection, national in scope, has already been shown in Chicago and New Orleans. The other half of the show, called "The Maryland Tradition," presents African-American works made in Maryland.

The concept of this combination began to take shape about a year ago, when Mr. Beard approached the historical society with the idea of showing his collection. Maryland is a natural site for such an exhibit: It has a large black community with a rich history, and it's situated between the South and the Northeast, two principal regions reflected in the Beard collection.

Mr. Beard, 37, first became interested in art through a Haitian friend a decade ago. His interest subsequently broadened -- especially after he began visiting the South -- and he began buying, selling and collecting African-American arts and crafts. It is not an easy field.

"The problem with objects is saying specifically, 'Yes, these were made by African-Americans,' " says the former engineer and construction company owner. "Until recently there was not strong interest in these objects, and they did not have much value. Now there's a lot of interest, and what little is available is immediately snapped up.

"And now," he continues, "since they have a little value, everyone, especially in the South, wants to attribute things to African-Americans as a selling point. People are becoming very loose in saying blacks made things with no solid truth behind it."

To establish the origin of a piece, Mr. Beard says, it's helpful to know where it came from and who has owned it, elements of style and consideration of construction techniques and materials. He also recommends buying from reputable dealers. Mr. Carter has established in Chicago the nonprofit Center for African-American Decorative Arts for research and documentation of African-American made objects.

"By showing the collection I hope to increase public awareness of African-American objects so that we can understand who we are as Americans and what American culture really is," he says. "Most people don't understand that American culture has been formed from different ideas, styles and ethnicities."

Another aim of the exhibit, he says, is to "deconstruct the idea that everything beautiful and everything academic has to be white, and that it has to be crooked, folksy and naive to be black."

Mr. Beard's collection reflects the skills of people from many parts of the country. From Milton, N.C., comes 19th-century furniture, including a pier table and a sideboard, attributed to Thomas Day (1801-1861). In the decades before the Civil War, Day built the largest furniture manufacturing business in North Carolina, Mr. Beard says. Day also made the show's secretary-desk, whose bookcase doors are adorned with an S-curve design much like the African symbol for Sankofa, a proverb meaning "retrieve the past to go forward." It's unknown whether the furniture maker was aware of Sankofa or whether the design is a coincidence.

From York, Pa., come daguerreotypes by the Goodridge brothers, among America's first professional photographers. From Cincinnati is a maple four-poster made by Henry Boyd (1802-1886), born a slave in Kentucky, who earned his freedom and became a successful furniture maker. In 1833, Boyd patented the first bed built without nails.

From New Orleans is an elegant daybed by Dutreuil Barjon Jr. (born 1822), a member of New Orleans' free black community, the wealthiest such community in the country before the Civil War. Also from New Orleans came Edmond Dede (born 1827), a classical music composer who studied at the Paris Conservatory in the 1850s and subsequently became conductor of the orchestra of Bordeaux, France -- a post he held for 20 years. One of his works, along with other music, will be played during the show.

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