Exhibits of a people's past Art: Black History Month shows at area venues make clear the contributions of African-Americans to all of America.

February 09, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

As an American and a Marylander, my heritage includes those great African-American leaders of the 19th century who hailed from Maryland, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. But I don't remember learning about them in school or in college, and my knowledge of history was poorer for that.

When I did learn about them, mainly through art and history exhibits, they became a part of my consciousness without becoming any less a part of the consciousness of African-Americans.

So the important thing to remember about Black History Month, which we celebrate in February, is that it's not only for African-Americans. It's here to tell everyone about black Americans' contributions to the story of our nation.

A generous offering of current Baltimore-Washington-area exhibits relative to black history ranges from African art to American history to jazz and popular culture to contemporary art.

"Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the Harmon Collection" at Washington's National Portrait Gallery deals most directly with black history.

William E. Harmon (1862-1928), a white American with an interest in African-Americans, established the Harmon Foundation in 1922 to recognize blacks' contributions. One of the foundation's projects was the creation of a series of portraits of distinguished black Americans, which toured the country in the 1940s and 1950s. Forty-one of the portraits were subsequently given to the Portrait Gallery, and 20 of them are on view in the current show.

Some of these people we all know, or think we do: singer Marian Anderson, scientist and educator George Washington Carver, diplomat Ralph Bunche, lawyer and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall (painted in 1956, before his appointment to the court), singer and actor Paul Robeson.

We know their names, anyway, but how much more? We associate Carver with the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, but do we know, as the show's label informs, that "his laboratory investigations there led to the discovery of more than 450 new commercial products -- ranging from margarine to library paste -- that could be made from the peanut, the sweet potato, and various other cultivated plants"? Do we know that Robeson was, among many other things, a lawyer? I didn't.

Other names will be known to some but not all, such as labor

leader A. Philip Randolph, cultural historian Alain Locke, sociologist and historian W. E. B. DuBois and artist Aaron Douglas.

And then there will be those whom few will recognize. For example, Jane Matilda Bolin, born in 1908, graduated from Wellesley College and in 1939 became the first black woman in the United States appointed to a judgeship (in New York City). Jessie Faucet (1882-1961) was the most published novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, author of "Plumb Bun" (1929), "The Chinaberry Tree" (1931) and other books. Hugh Mulzac (1886-1971) in 1942 became the first African-American naval officer to command an integrated crew. Architect Paul Williams (1894-1980) designed everything from development housing to department stores and churches, plus mansions for Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball and Tyrone Power.

Consider "Breaking Racial Barriers" more a history than an art exhibit. The portraits, by Betsy Graves Reyneau and Laura Wheeler Waring, are pretty standard stuff. Of the two, Waring gets the nod for her more interesting brush work.

Right across the hall from this exhibit, celebrate another great black American, Josephine Baker, in "Le Tumulte Noir: Paul Colin's Jazz Age Portfolio." In 1925, the American show "La Revue Negre" opened at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris and its star, Baker, took Paris by storm with her dancing and singing. She went on to become a star of night clubs, films and recordings.

In 1929, the young French artist Paul Colin created a portfolio of lithographs called "Le Tumulte Noir," which celebrated Baker and African-American jazz music and dance. Fourteen of the 44 works in the portfolio are presented in this one-gallery show, including Baker dancing in her banana skirt, other dancers singly and in couples, and an evocative picture of a jazz band. These are accompanied by an audio recording of songs of the time, including the Charleston and Baker singing the spirited "Ram Pam Pam." This happy little show makes a nice complement to the portrait show.

At the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest, Washington. 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily, both exhibits through Sept. 14. For information, call (202) 357-2700.

Also currently on view in Washington is the National Museum of African Art's "A King and His Cloth: Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh I." This one-gallery show presents a 7-by-10-foot "adinkra" cloth, decorated with 23 culturally significant motifs, that was worn by the 19th-century Ghanaian king. The cloth is complemented by seven photographs related to Prempeh's life, and text panels on the king, the cloth and its importance.

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