There are two lessons to learn from Collecting Is Our Legacy, the current exhibit at Fisk University's Carl Van Vechten Gallery. One is about African-American art, and the other is about art collecting. The exhibition highlight is a piece by Romare Bearden — the Picasso of 20th century African-American art — but the entire exhibit features diverse work that follows the story of its collector: a former schoolteacher with an art dealer son who stumbled into the middle of one of the most galvanizing art movements ever.
Varnette P. Honeywood's "Jesus Loves Me" illustrates what happens inside a packed church building on Sunday mornings — a preacher raises his arms at the pulpit, little girls with white gloves and Mary Janes hold hands in front of people who are passing a full offering plate, fanning themselves with bulletins, clapping, holding tambourines, being joyous and reverent all at once, all together. The positive depiction of everyday African-American life is something that Honeywood illustrated with originality and deep respect. Her paintings decorated the sets of The Cosby Show, A Different World, Amen and 227, and illuminate the way that fine art can influence the lives of regular people, in much the same way that the stained-glass windows in the painting's church did for people in a different time.
Another standout in the collection, John Riddle Jr.'s "Above (aka Clubs Is Trumps)," portrays a different side of contemporary life — the hedonistic allure of life on the street. Formally, the work is based on a grid pattern, which gives the piece the appearance of a bird's-eye view of a city block. There are men in zoot suits standing on street corners, a couple dancing, a man drinking beer at a bar. Big block letters spell out "Misdeal! Reshuffle the cards man!" and it is apparent that you have to hustle to get by in this neighborhood.
The entire exhibit is arranged around the relationships between the artists and the collectors. Mother-son team Dorothy Thompson and Lamar Wilson spent years in the art world, building relationships with artists whose work they respected. Wilson was an art dealer, and became friends with many of the artists he encountered, and his mother began to pick up on the influence as well. The collection she's amassed, with his guidance, began in the early 1980s and has grown to include hundreds of works, mainly from 20th century African-American artists. At the bottom of Riddle's "Above," the artist has written a personal note: "To Lamar's Mom. Job well done!" Paul Goodnight wrote a message for Wilson directly on his lithograph "Hydranto": "We have to teach them to teach themselves."
The jewel of the exhibit is "The Family," a Romare Bearden photo etching and aquatint from 1975. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Bearden uses color and mixes media in a way that is at once simple and complex, childlike and grandiose. This is a terrific example of his enduring style — collage that uses opposing elements as if creating a bricolage of influence in the identities of black Americans. By bringing the art in this exhibit into the public arena, Thompson and Wilson are showing by example, and truly teaching us to teach ourselves.
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