The artworks on view offer multiple points of entry into the ways that artists explore complex ideas about the social, economic, political, and aesthetic roles of art in African and African American contexts.
As you tour the exhibition, consider that there are multiple approaches to the idea of conversations:
- Curatorial — how the selected artworks exemplify aesthetic merit and connect with one another to explore particular ideas and themes
- Artistic — how artists employ form, material, and motifs to create compelling compositions that communicate ideas relevant to individuals or communities
- Personal — how you are moved by certain works of art…and why
David Driskell’s painting is in dialogue with the long history of art making on the African continent, for it references masterful, centuries-old castings by Edo artists working in Nigeria’s Benin kingdom. The artist’s understanding of African art is also reflected in his focus on the head as a locus of spiritual power, something that Driskell captures exceedingly well in the penetrating eyes of his subject.—Christine Mullen Kreamer
In distinct ways—an enveloping embrace, a gentle touch of the hand—both works of art emphasize the nurturing role of women and the fundamental importance of having children and raising them to be productive members of society. In Maternity, a sculpture that the Cosbys commissioned from the artist Elizabeth Catlett, movement is suggested by the turn of the woman’s head and by the child’s upraised arms. In the Kongo sculpture, the female figure, kneeling on one bent knee, seems poised for action. Its white coloration suggests the spirit world and the role it played as a funerary sculpture.
These works are united by their depiction of foreign or exotic subject matter. The Yoruba artist Alamide relies upon a distinctive form of headwear to portray an Islamic northerner, one of the characters featured in some gelede performances—masquerades that honor and placate the powerful and potentially dangerous capacities of elderly women.
In 1897, Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled to Cairo, Egypt, as part of his artistic education, making him the first professional African American artist to visit the African continent. The sensitive portrayal of a Cairo man reveals Tanner’s interest in the faces and costumes of the people he encountered during his travels to North Africa and the Middle East.
A study in contrasts, this figure combines naturalism and stylization. The carefully rendered head rests on an exceptionally long neck that is almost equal in length with the torso. Hips and legs are more naturalistic in proportion, while hands and feet are rudimentary.
In a sculpture like Inner Music, you just know that you’re looking at an artist who had to have had music in him, had to have had dance in him.—William H. Cosby Jr.