Photography show uses griot tradition Art review: UMBC exhibit by four African-American photographers succeeds on several levels.

February 22, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In African history, there is a long tradition of the griot, or storyteller. Descending from that tradition, the narrative strain continues to be a strong presence in African-American art, including photography.

As evidence, UMBC's Kuhn Gallery offers its latest photography show, "Visual Griots," a selection of pieces by four photographers whose work deals with history, personal and national.

It's possible to imagine that such a show might succeed on several levels: It could show us a variety of ways in which narrative photographers work, it could work as a pure aesthetic experience, and it could reach us on a personal level, with work that relates to the viewer's life as well as to the artist's. As realized, it does some of each.

Of the four artists, Cary Beth Cryor and Deborah Willis deal in the realm of the family, and because the subject is a universal, their works communicate with the viewer on the most intimate level.

Cryor concentrates on the life of her grandmother, Carrie Bryant Tillman, now 101 years old. Through Cryor's and other family members' photographs, through excerpts from a diary her grandmother kept, and through a video of Tillman's 100th birthday celebration in 1994, Cryor creates a partial portrait of a woman whose life story embodies courage, love and -- to use her own word -- determination.

It's an affecting story of a woman whose generation has seen the world change perhaps more than at any comparable period in history. But Cryor leaves us longing for more. Having taken an interest in her grandmother's life for decades, having lived with her for three years at one point, Cryor must know a great deal more about this life than she shares here. If this story were fleshed out with more text (and if possible more pictures), it would be even more involving.

Willis takes a more general approach, combining photos, arti

cles of clothing and other materials into quilts that deal with aspects of her family's life. Although Willis' father is featured in a number of these, they encompass various family members and as a result are less focused and effective than Cryor's. But Willis makes good use of appropriate materials: Quilts about her father are made with his ties, for instance.

Stephen Marc's computer-produced digital montages, from a series called "Soul Searching," combine personal materials with African symbols in a search for what the show's catalog calls "personal, cultural and historical identity."

As an investigation of identity, this series means much more to the artist than it can to the viewer, because in a narrative sense these images remain largely mysterious. But in purely visual terms, these large-scale montages with their individual images emerging from patterned surfaces provide the most satisfying aesthetic experience in the show.

William Earle Williams takes a more historical, less personal approach than the others here. His photographs on the battlefield at Gettysburg eloquently record what Williams calls "a part of our shared collective experience."

'Visual Griots'

Where: Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (to 8 p.m. Thursdays), 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through March 31

Call: (410) 455-2270

Symposium: "The Role of the Afro-American Artist as Cultural Historian" will be the topic at 4:30 p.m. March 7 in the gallery.

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