Artistic vistas of the black experience

Critic's Corner//Art

Art Column

November 08, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

If African-Americans don't buy artworks by African-American artists, who will?

A decade ago, that question prompted a group of black collectors in Washington to join together to share their knowledge and experience.

They wanted to create a forum where they could discuss African-American art, make group visits to artists' studios and find ways to support local artists, dealers and visual arts programs.

The fruits of their efforts are on display this month in Holding Our Own, a lovely exhibition of African-American artworks owned by members of the Collectors Club of Washington at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi.

The show includes paintings, sculptures and works on paper by many of the acknowledged African-American masters, including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Augusta Savage, Dox Thrash, Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas.

Bearden, for example, is represented by a somewhat mischievous but delightful watercolor collage titled Nude in Black (1975).

The diminutive work, fashioned from Bearden's signature collaged and painted cutouts of magazine illustrations, depicts a mother, father and child gathered around a humble kitchen table in an unpretentious urban apartment - perhaps an oblique reference to Henry O. Tanner's iconic The Thankful Poor (1894).

Through an open doorway on the right, however, one catches a glimpse of a reclining black nude who looks as if she might just have stepped out of the pool in one of Ingres' luscious paintings of the Turkish bath. Her presence adds an unexpected fillip of what Matisse called "luxe, calme et volupte" to this otherwise quotidian mise-en-scene.

James L. Wells was a master printmaker and pioneering figure of the Harlem Renaissance who influenced generations of black artists in his classes at Howard University in Washington.

In this show, Wells is represented by a beautiful linocut of a woman's face set against an abstract background of tropical flowers and plants.

Wells' African Fantasy (1931) clearly shows the influence of Matisse and Gauguin, but it also looks forward to the exuberant "Afro-Deco" style of later black artists such as Baltimore sculptor Tom Miller and Washington painter James Phillips. Its presence here recalls how much the artists of the Harlem Renaissance owed to the early 20th-century European modernists, whose use of abstraction was embraced by black artists as a liberating tool for creating a new image of the African experience in America.

The show also includes works by many lesser-known but historically significant artists who have carried on the decorative traditions of the Harlem Renaissance to the present day.

Among these latter Harlem Renaissance-inspired artists are Camille Billops, Sheila Crider, Evangeline J. "E.J." Montgomery, Richard Mayhew, Margo Humphrey, Michael Platt, Lou Stovall and John Biggers.

Montgomery, who also serves as an adviser to the collectors' group, is best known for her innovative and colorful works on paper, many of which take the form of abstract drawings.

In the present show, however, she's represented by a striking depiction of Ibeji dolls, ceremonial objects that are made upon the birth of twins in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. The dolls are rendered against a dark blue background decorated with cowrie shells.

In its subtle blend of figurative and abstract elements, its references to the African past and its masterful technique, the work sums up an 80-year-long tradition of black artmaking since the Harlem Renaissance that remains as vital as ever as an expression of the African-American experience.

Holding Our Own: Selections from the Collectors Club of Washington runs through Jan. 7 in the Arts Program Gallery at University of Maryland University College, 3501 University Blvd. E. in Adelphi. Call 301-985-7937 or go to

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