As the American artist Barbara Januszkiewicz once noted, people need to “be drawn to the visual arts [to] expand [the] imagination.” On the power of art and progress, Januszkiewicz further stated, “creative thinking inspires ideas [and] ideas inspire change.”
Embracing Diverse Voices: A Century of African-American Art, now showing at the BYU Museum of Art, demonstrates the power of visual arts to impact issues of race, racism, and culture in America. Since its opening on Feb. 3, this important collection of works by African-American artists has inspired thoughtful commentary from a wide array of visitors, as seen in handwritten notes posted prominently near the exhibit entrance.
“We have tomorrow, bright before us like a flame,” begins one note, penned by a visitor from Minnesota. “May we celebrate our histories, our cultures, our differences, and our humanity as we make tomorrow better.”
On loan exclusively from the Kalamazoo Institute of Art in Michigan, this unique collection features a wide array of African-American artists, styles, and media. To better frame the experience, curators have placed a multimedia timeline at the exhibit’s entrance. The timeline, which highlights “Milestones on the Early March to Freedom’s Gate,” features quotes and photographs from figures such as Marian Anderson (who sings an excerpt from the national anthem in a video clip, heard through attached headphones below the display). The lives of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and murder victim Emmett Till also contribute to the timeline, painting a rich and diverse portrait of racial and cultural milestones that culminated in the Civil Rights era.
As museum visitors enter the exhibit proper, they engage with vibrantly colored works set against a backdrop of dark charcoal gray. The overwhelming sensation is indeed one of color and emotion, drama and solemnity. As stated in the opening comments, “some works offer a glimpse of an artist’s personal vision, [and] others speak out as bold political and social calls to action.” Key figures from the Harlem Renaissance are represented, along with a broad spectrum of artists up to the current day. A partial list shows this spectrum well: Murphy Darden, Kalamazoo artist; Charles White, Charles Henry Alston—whose untitled oil painting of a couple channels Picasso and other Cubists—and Richard Mayhew and Romare Bearden.
If all art exhibits have a focal point, this exhibit arguably chooses Jacob Lawrence’s 22 color screenprints on the life of the abolitionist John Brown for that focal point. Curators note that “in the 1930s and 40s, Jacob Lawrence painted several historical epics focusing on heroic 19th-century figures.” As both an artist and educator, Lawrence used his paintings to teach lessons to students and art patrons alike. By his own account, his works embody a “dynamic Cubism” influenced by the shapes and colors of Harlem. In the John Brown series, the title figure is portrayed as a “complex, tragic figure, often depicted alone or with his back to the viewer” so as to heighten the emotional effect of each vignette.
Lawrence’s color palette largely encompasses earth tones (taupe, mustard, terra cotta, brown, and black), although the artist also knows to heighten a dramatic situation effectively with a flash of teal or deep sky blue. Lawrence’s use of sharp angles and strong geometric shapes are emblematic of his Cubist leanings, as are his dramatic juxtapositions. Each figure’s skin shows flesh tones in some prints and raspberry tones in others, depending on the artist’s wish to communicate bright or low light in a graphic way. All it takes is one simple color shift for viewers to feel the time of day or weather conditions rather than seeing them in a realistic way. Figures are posed in stylized positions, as in print number ten, “Those pro-slavery were murdered by those anti-slavery,” in which murdered bodies lie stacked in alternation—some with heads to the left, some to the right. In print number 16, only the right leg and back of John Brown can be seen leaving the picture frame on the right side.
The exhibit concludes with a variety of works by myriad contemporary African-American artists, including Richard Hunt, Garry R. Bibbs, Reginald Gammon, Al Lavergne, and Benny Andrews. The cumulative effect of Embracing Diverse Voicesis one of solemnity, courage, bracing color, and raw emotional intensity. Patron comments seem to underlie this common experience. Notes a Puerto Rican visitor, “As a woman of color, it was very emotional for me to see this exhibit.” Writes another visitor, “Thank you for reminding us of some of the brave people and brave actions that have helped us on our journey toward increased understanding of all people.” But a visiting museum patron from New York may have put it best: “Remember, black history is American history. We cannot pick and choose our past, but we can change our future by remembering and acknowledging the truth.”
“Embracing Diverse Voices: A Century of African American Art,” BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through April 29. Free admission during regular museum hours, moa.byu.edu.
Ruth Christensen writes full time for Imagine Learning, an education-based software company in Provo. She also works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher after having taught vocal music for many years at BYU, UVU, and SUU.