Generations on a Theme

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Generations on a Theme, Local women artists of varying ages explore their African connections
By Robin Rice, © Philadelphia City Paper, 04/27/2000

The African American Museum honors generations of women artists in a couple of shows which continue into late spring. Barbara Chase-Riboud (b. 1936), the senior artist, is represented by a solo show, which, though presenting inventive variations on a theme, only hints at the splendid power of her earlier bronze and fiber sculpture. Like many Philadelphia-born artists, Chase-Riboud’s first art experiences were at Fleisher Art Memorial. She later attended Tyler. After European travel, she trained as an architect at Yale; however, she made her mark as sculptor, poet and novelist. "The Monument Drawings" is her first large body of work since her turn to writing in the ’70s.

Her prize-winning 1979 novel Sally Hemmings (edited by Jacqueline Onassis) was ahead of the curve of interest in Hemmings’ recently confirmed relationship with Thomas Jefferson. She dropped her suit against Stephen Spielberg over similarities between his treatment of the so-called "Amistad revolt" in his film and her prescient 1989 novel Echo of Lions.

For the 23 surreal "Monument Drawings," originating at St. John’s Museum of Art, Wilmington, NC, Chase-Riboud fettered and spurred her imagination with strict technical and conceptual parameters. The "drawings" are really drawn variations on a print in which themes of bondage, barriers and prison are frequently suggested by coils of rope and piles of stone.

The core etching has two elements. Firstly, a horizontal column-like motif has blocky ends, perhaps base and capital, united by twining fibrous linear elements which slightly resemble fluting but equally look like plants, hair, or the fibers Chase-Riboud has used in her sculpture. This shape is balanced by a single undulating line. A freed strand of fiber or a hilly horizon line, it can be easily incorporated in many vignettes. The artist sometimes places the "column" at the top of the picture and sometimes at the bottom. Embedding the print in a variety of media, she transforms it into the representation of an imagined monument dedicated to an individual or event.

Chase-Riboud has traveled widely and spent much of her adult life in Europe. She currently resides in Paris and maintains a studio in Rome. Although she brings an Afro-centric and female perspective to her work, her broad, even arcane, interests are celebrated. There’s a monument for Rubens’ mother and one for Tomasi di Lampedusa, for example, memorializes the grandfather rather than his more famous grandson, the author.

Female sexuality is an important topic for this artist both in poetry and visual work. The Precious Concubine Pearl is the subject of two "monuments" and a poem. Other subjects include Émile Zola and the Marquis de Sade.

Curated by Philadelphian Dejee Byrd, "On the Verge" is one of those rare "emerging artists" shows which actually focuses on younger artists. Several of the eight are from Philadelphia and all are 25 to 31. As Byrd writes in a curatorial statement, they are "the first generation to fully reap the benefits of the civil rights movement," benefits which she points out are fragile.

Juxtaposed with a sophisticate like Chase-Riboud, some appear unformed and uncertain, but others project a strong, focused vitality. The most striking work is Kim Mayhorn’s installation A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day…. A New York filmmaker, Mayhorn is one of the "30 Women to Watch" in this month’s Essence magazine. Her installation, which, according to exhibition designer Adrian Loving, has been shown in slightly different form in three other venues, is composed with great attention to nuance.

Against a shady brown wall, pieces of bark, tree trunks and other props evoke the scene of a lynching in the woods. Visitors are invited to enter the environment to touch and examine its components. Dry leaves crunching underfoot add what would be a comfortable outdoorsy smell if the rest of the installation were not so sinister. A mirror is placed so that we see our reflections through a small noose hanging from a limb. A faded gasoline canister suggests horrific possibilities. Empty bottles, crushed cigarettes, and a small American flag tell us about the people who were here. Several worn dresses in outdated styles dangle from improvised tree-branch hangers. Each is neatly labeled with the details of a particular crime against a black woman. A technical problem silenced the soundtrack of Mayhorn’s taped poem, which is also posted on the wall. A long-ago voice explains that she killed her child born of rape because "…I’d be damned if she’d be his property too."

"A Woman" drives home the abomination of group violence and reminds us that black women as well as men were victims of lynching. Its unique strength for me, though, is the way it suggests violence against the proper order of life, a meta-rape of nature with the inventive cruelty specific to human beings.

In a contemporary mode, the accomplished color photographs of Nzingah Muhammad, who teaches at Tyler, deal with Muslim women in the United States. Some address the issue of Islamic dress. Muhammad, for example, photographed herself in a sparkling clean but not fancy kitchen. Dressed all in white, she looks directly at the camera. Her hair is covered but her long dress leaves arms and shoulders bare.

Rachel Reser’s hand-built terra cotta vessels could be functional, but they are displayed to emphasize an emblematic African connection. One is encircled with dried black beans; one stands on a head ring of fiber; and one has knots of raffia connecting a piercing in the rippling lip of another.

Ayana Evans’ papier-mâché masks celebrate full-throttle feminine fashion. Older women with differing skin tones are proud in fancy hats and pursed lipsticked mouths. I’m Ret to Go, with a button eye and a feathered sequined mask, is accompanied by a choice of three switches of hair: relaxed, Jeri-curled, or dreads.

Like Evans, Quashelle Curtis manipulates clichés relating to black culture. In her artist’s statement, she says that when her great-grandmother was 5 years old, she was given away as a "live Negro doll." Curtis’ deliberately crude hip-hop Barbies could be better — not more polished, but more complex and layered with unfolding meanings. Also indicting commercial standards of beauty, Ayanah Moor’s Pop-influenced paintings and screen prints of attractive young blacks are negatives (as in photographic negatives) of whites. Moor makes black paint function metaphorically. Her flattened simplistic portraits fuse glamour and anger.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ video NO! deals with rape and incest through the testimony of survivors. Their individual stories are effective. However, a male actor who, not very convincingly, reads poetic lines representing the point of view of "we so-called men, so-called brothers" who committed the hateful acts, concludes the film with the suggestion that some black men "love" black women "like America loves us."

This is a glib and problematic message — one which seems to shift responsibility from the perpetrator to society. True, social forces may play a major role in the development of a sick, evil person, but an adult must take responsibility for his or her actions. Perhaps Shahidah Simmons intends us to question this man’s excuse. If so, she succeeded in her goal.

Whatever one concludes about these provocative artists at this point in their careers, we will probably hear from them again. They will grow and this is our opportunity to see them while they are still "On the Verge."