Two exhibits put African-American art in historical context 

Sign of the Times

Sign of the Times

Last weekend, Kara Walker unveiled her monumental sphinx sculpture, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby," at the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn to accolades from the entire art world (and their Instagram feeds). In a month, Lonnie Holley and Thornton Dial will install massive NEA-funded public works in North Nashville's Edmondson Park. African-American artists are making some of the most acclaimed and relevant art of our time. But that was not always the case. Two exhibits currently on view in Nashville — Jubilee! at Fisk University's Carl Van Vechten Gallery and A Creative Legacy at the Tennessee State Museum — showcase African-American art as something that was at times marginalized and underappreciated.

Most people familiar with art in Nashville know about Fisk's deal to share its Stieglitz collection with Arkansas' Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. For those who aren't, the short version is this: A large chunk of Fisk's valuable art collection was lent out to another institution as a way to help the university cover expenses, and it won't return to Nashville until 2016. Jubilee! fills the hole the absent collection left, showcasing modest works by greats like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence alongside masterpieces by lesser-known artists like William Henry Johnson, whose career began during the height of the Harlem Renaissance but was cut short when he was committed to a mental institution in the mid-1940s.

Johnson's triptych of important African-Americans is easily a highlight of the exhibit's folk-art constituency. Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois are painted on bent squares of salmon-colored cardboard in a bold, reductive way that's a departure from the artist's more expressive earlier work. Dubois' pocket square and Douglass' dandyish double-breasted jacket provide the works with details often overlooked in portraits of the men, making them appear somehow outside of history. In fact, Fisk gallery director Sara Estes says another painting by Johnson, the large "Booker T. Washington Teaching" on the other side of the gallery, is often misidentified by younger visitors who assume the black man in front of a classroom of students is President Obama — a meaningful mistake that illustrates the sea change the civil rights movement has created in American society.

Less subtle is the rusted chain shackle hanging on the wall near the gallery's exhibition signage — a strange idiosyncrasy in an otherwise straightforward exhibition of fine art. It's a bold move to present an artifact from slavery's history in America front-and-center in an exhibit of art that never directly examines slavery's influence.

At Tennessee State Museum, however, the line between Jim Crow-era and contemporary art is blurred so much as to become almost indiscernible. A grand impressionistic portrait of Alex Haley looks in on a display of sandstone sculptures by early 20th century folk artist William Edmondson. Edmondson's statuette of Eleanor Roosevelt is a highlight here — with her Bride of Frankenstein hair and one hand on her bosom, she looks like a miniature superhero mid-flight. A glass case of drawings and ephemera from brothers Joseph and Beauford Delaney is similarly shown as half-art and half-artifact, and their proximity to large-scale works by contemporary artists like Sam Dunson and James Threalkill is out of place, highlighting the similarities among the artists as African-Americans before considering all the nuances that distinguish them. The museum's curators seem to be aware of this, and add a defensive addendum to the first few lines of the curatorial statement: "All of the works shown in the exhibit are part of the collection of the Tennessee State Museum and have been assembled over the past 40 years," it explains. "Due to limited space, the museum cannot display more than five percent of the collection at any given time."

This limited space may unfairly marginalize the artists, especially given the history exhibit Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation that's just next door. You can even hear a re-enactor playing the role of a Wessyngton slave as she speaks about her experience at Wessyngton in a mock-interview that's completely audible through the wall the two exhibits share. But whether it's the curators' intention or not, the overlapping placement seems like an on-point commentary on how difficult it is to escape slavery's history in America.

Exhibiting African-American art in a historical context is heavy stuff. Take Roberta Smith's review of Walker's aforementioned sugar baby in The New York Times: "This creature is a power image, a colossal goddess of the future awaiting veneration. With blank eyes, she might also be a blind diviner who knows that the American future is much less white, racially, than its past." Maybe it's this less-white future that makes it so easy to dwell on the echoes of slavery in all African-American art. That's doubtless too big an issue to delve into in an art review, or even with a pair of art exhibitions being shown within two miles of each other. But it's a start.




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