‘New Day’ arrives at LBJ: Major African American art exhibits fulfills Lady Bird’s wish,
By Shermakaye Bass, © Austin American-Statesman, 2/19/2000
More than a decade ago, Lady Bird Johnson asked Ada Anderson to make her a promise that sometime in the not so distant future, Austin’s tireless arts crusader would organize a major exhibit of African American art for the LBJ Library and museum. The two cultural doyennes, one black one white, believe that such a show would be a natural manifestation of LBJ’s civil rights legacy, and they vowed to make it happen in their life-times.
Today their dream becomes reality when “Our New Day Begun African American Artists Entering the Millennium” – a comprehensive look at some of this country’s most comprehensive look at some of this country’s most prominent and prolific artist – opens at the presidential library and museum, signifying that perhaps with the turn of a new century, a new day has begun. Granted that day dawned more than three decades ago during the civil rights movement, but the continued scarcity of major African American art exhibitions implies that that day remains locked in its morning hours. In some ways then this show might herald the arrival of high noon – that moment of bright uncompromising light that precedes evening’s approach. The time before things is brought to fruition and the challenges of the day are put to rest.
Two of Austin’s most prominent women hope that is the case. Precisely eleven yeas ago, at a reception for the national “Harlem Renaissance” exhibit that toured the LBJ, Anderson and Johnson struck up a conversation to that effect. They were old friends – Anderson, a long – laboring force in the art community, having served on the boards of dozens of major cultural and educational institutions, and the former first lady, a well known champion of civil rights arts and the environment.
Anderson recalls the exchange vividly: “Mrs. Johnson said to me that night, and it burned into my brain. ‘You know, it was so important to Lyndon that African Americans would always come to this library in large numbers, and that they achievements would be celebrated here in perpetuity.’ And she took my hand and said, ‘Mrs. Anderson, I want you to promise me that you’re going to find another exhibit of this quality.’ It never left my mind – and she wouldn’t’ let it leave my mind,” quips Anderson, founder of the Leadership Enrichment Arts Program. And other art outreach projects. “So when I told her last year that the museum was going to do it, she looked up at me and clapped her hands and said: ‘Oh good, good, good. Now I’ve got something to hang around a little longer for…’ ”
The timing couldn’t have been better. The exhibit coincides with the 35th anniversary of the President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1965, the legislation that launched the process of integration and hoped for harmony between not only blacks and whites but between any “minority” group and the patriarchal white status quo. The exhibit is also significant in that it pushes for more cultural openness within the fine-art world – to this day, an indisputably white male-dominated society.
And on a more intimate level, the show is important in terms of bridging the distance between generations. By shining new light on contemporary artists in various stages of their careers – from loving legends such a Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett and Jean Lacy, to emerging art starts such a Michael Ray Charles, James Ayers, Kojo Griffin, Kim Mayhorn and Radcliffe Bailey; and relative new comers including locals Arleen Polite and Reggie Thomas – the show traces the sensibilities and experiences shared by African American artists, and at the same time underscores the range of expression within the field of fine art, regardless of race, gender of age.
Curated by Alvia Wardlaw, head of the 20th century art collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “Our New Day Begun” brings together all those elements in a compelling and lyrical way. Through sculpture, painting, photography new media and traditional forms such as text the arts and stained glass design, the show offers a narrative account of the cultural evolution of African American America. Moreover, it’s a meditation on the past, present and future of American art, chronicling the shifts in mood and media, the various movements and genres during the past several decades. Thus, ”Our New Day Begin” is a macrocosm of American art, an unfailing compass that reveals where we stand as a country, where we’ve been and where we’re bound at this particular moment in time.
“This is part of the American experience,” says Anderson. “It is the American experience, but it’s just something that’s not on the radar screen. There’s been lots of conversation among African American artists about the fact that a lot of museums ignore them. But an African American art collector told me recently that there is becoming quite and interest – that serious art collectors are beginning to discover this rich source and are beginning to purchase.”
Many of the 37 artists in the exhibit have made their way into the so-called mainstream. Painter Jacob Lawrence, arguably the elder/pioneer featured in this show, as a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Academy of Arts and Sciences. President Carter nominated him commissioner of the National Council of the Arts in 1978 and President Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1990. As the first black painter embraced by major galleries in the 1930’s, Lawrence, now professor emeriturs at the University of Washington, was instrumental in clearing a path for generations to come, creating elegant and succinct vignettes of pre-civil rights America.
An example of one who has followed the path, not necessarily in style but in spirit and promise, is Atlanta’s Kojo Griffin. A psychology major-cum-painter in his late 30’s, Griffin’s mysterious and ambiguous depictions of figures (almost doll-like, often featureless, always haunting) tell of man’s ongoing struggle against isolation and misunderstanding – a universal condition expressed from his own sophisticated painterly perspective. Griffin will be featured in this year’s Biennial Exhibition of the Whitney Museum in New York.
Also represented in the exhibit are leaders such a John Bigeers, a muralist who founded one of the fist college art departments in the country geared towards African American students (at Texas Southern University in Houston). Having studied under Penn State’s Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish artist who fled Nazi Germany, Biggers went on to become a nationally renowned professor whose work can be found in museum collections around the country.
“Our New Day Begun” also includes the work of Gordon Parks, Life magazine’s first black photographer and now filmmaker, writer and composer – a barrier, breaker whose film “The Learning Tree” was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.
Indeed many of the artists in this exhibit embody a high level of national achievement. Editor and independent filmmaker Kim Mayhorn, a New York-based artist who has worked for “48 Hours,” is one of two black Fellows currently in the Whitney Museum’s independent study project. Painter Michael Ray Charles, a young professor, is already a presence in the national gallery scene. Both Mayhorn and Charles deal very directly with racial stereotypes and their results – Charles by using negative symbols such as the cotton-picker’s sack or the black face/ Sambo/ Uncle Tom image in a witty and disturbing form of social parody, and Mayhorn by assembling actual footage in exhibits such as “A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day,’ an installation about black-female lynching, shown recently at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Other artists, such as printmaker Arleen Polite of Austin and painter Jasmine Jackson of Lithonia, Ga., are more representative in their portrayals of African American men, woman and children and the messages they convey. In fact the “message” is often not a statement of manifesto rather, a beautiful and masterful rendering inspired by very personal experiences. Jackson in particular considers herself a portrait artist. She describes her primary concern as one of the exploring the physical beauty of her subjects.
The others in the show (and all deserve a more detailed examination, which the LBJ exhibit provides), represent every avenue of artistic expression, be it abstract or narrative, literal or metaphorical, experimental or conventional.
“There is a lot of stereotyping that goes on between the public’s perception of what an artist is and what an artist does,” says curator Wardlaw. “And I think this show reflects the variety of artistic expression. The one thing I think we were looking for was artists who couldn’t be pegged as just ‘African-American’ artists. But there is definitely a thread that connects them, a sensibility of where they come from and how they cultural background influences their work.”
As a group show, such cohesion is mandatory. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to consider “Our New Day Begun” merely a group show. It functions on many levels: historical creative, communal, social, and cultural. Most telling though, it offers insights into the artistic impulse, that inexplicable source that propels an artist to paint, to find voice. The artist as conduit and translator of the internal (made external) can only speak from a place that is familiar. And within that there is no color line.