Frank Smith pieces together expressions of black culture


Colorful patchworks are inspired by jazz rhythms

Art Column

December 13, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Frank Smith's colorful, abstract fabric quilts and scrolls, on view at Sub-Basement Artist Studios, have the clever, syncopated rhythms and joyous visual spontaneity of the jazz improvisations that inspired them.

In the 1970s, Smith was a founding member of the Chicago-based black arts group AFRICOBRA, or African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, whose goal was to create a distinctive aesthetic based on African-American history and culture.

Smith's vibrant mixed-media collages are constructed from an amazing variety of fabrics that run the gamut from silk and velvet to cotton and denim, all stitched together in a democratic crazy-quilt of bright colors and sensuous textures embellished with applique, embroidery and paint.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Wednesday's Today section accompanying an art review of works by Smadar Livne and Joyce Ellen Weinstein misstated the venue's location. The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Jewish Community Center is at 5700 Park Heights Ave. in Baltimore.

Many of the pieces are designed to be draped on the wall or suspended from the ceiling rather than framed. But unlike the enormous, abstract "drape" paintings of Washington painter Sam Gilliam, for instance, which also are intended to hang from the wall in irregular folds, Smith's quilts seem more fitted to the human body's dimensions. One can easily imagine wrapping oneself inside one of these pieces or sliding it over the bedcovers for an extra layer of warmth.

One of AFRICOBRA's goals was to bring visibility to what its founders saw as the overlooked and undervalued aesthetic contributions of a marginalized people. Black culture, whether expressed in music, Southern cuisine or urban styles of dress, often takes up things discarded as worthless by others and puts them to use in unexpected new ways.

Smith's pieces make use of all kinds of found objects - misplaced laundry, a child's glove missing its partner, bed linen, lamp and curtain tassels - that evoke the eclectic mix of disparate elements that characterize African-American culture. It's an aesthetic born of hardship in which nothing is wasted and extraordinary beauty awaits discovery in the most commonplace objects.

Smith, who moved to Baltimore several years ago, influenced a generation of students through his long career as a teacher in the art department at Howard University in Washington. This is his second solo show at Sub-Basement since moving here, and on the evidence of the work on display his genius for brilliant design and startling inventiveness shows no sign of flagging.

The Magical Revolution: Frank Smith and the Rise of AFRICOBRA runs through Jan. 27 at Sub-Basement Artist Studios, 118 N. Howard St. Call 410-659-6950 or

Biblical heroes

Washington-based artist Joyce Ellen Weinstein, whose prints, paintings and mixed-media works are on view at the Weinberg Jewish Community Center in Baltimore, is most notable for her passionate re-imaginings of biblical Jewish heroes and heroines.

Moses and Aaron, Miriam and Esther and a host of less familiar personages are the subjects of her powerful series of black-and-white linoleum cut prints that draw their inspiration from a diverse array of graphic styles ranging from early 20th-century German expressionism to contemporary comics and graphic novels.

In Moses and Joshua, for example, the two Old Testament heroes are depicted discussing God's revelation to Moses that he will not live to see the promised land and must, therefore, pass his mantle of leadership to Joshua.

The anguished expressions of the two men, conveyed through slashing black lines against a stark white background, suggest both the men's grief in the face of impending death and their unshakable resolve to obey God's will.

A companion show by Israeli artist Smadar Livne presents autobiographically inspired mixed-media collages and wood sculpture in the vibrant colors and cheerfully informal style associated with fantasy, outsider and visionary art, combined with cutting-edge contemporary fabrication and digital imaging techniques.

Both shows run through Feb. 18 at the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave. Call 410-542-4900, ext. 239; or visit

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