If it’s a true statement that art imitates life, then Manuel Hughes is living proof of that.
In his seventh decade, the artist and educator has spent the vast majority of his life expressing his stories through his paintings, with a talent that has only grown in visibility and popularity. In his latest exhibition, on view at 10th Street Gallery downtown, Hughes looks back at his black experience and lays it out on canvas, using plain yet detailed images to explore topics of violence and racism.
Hughes moved to St. Louis at the age of 7, and began his art education early on by taking classes at the now-defunct People’s Art Center in Grandel Square. He enrolled himself "…when I was in the second of the third grade,” he said.
"I had a very, very good elementary teacher who liked art also…the People’s Art Center and that particular instructor at Simmons [Elementary] was enough to push me. That was the beginning of showing a really strong interest in making art.”
He lived in North St. Louis, on Maffitt Avenue, and graduated from Soldan High School, and later earned Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Fine Art from the University of Missouri. “It wasn’t that safe to go out of your neighborhood for the fear of being beat up…it was very violent,” he remembered of growing up on the north side of the city.
Hughes experienced that violence firsthand, when as a young man he was mugged and stabbed on his way home to run an errand for his mother. The event inspired one of his most stark images, titled “Saturday, Bloody Saturday.”
“I was only about four doors away [from home]. Every now and then I think about that experience and other experiences that most African Americans go through. It’s kind of a tragic experience that most Americans experience growing up in the ghetto, especially when it was not that safe.”
Another piece, “Rape of the So Fine Women” is Hughes’ interpretation of the classical European art “Rape of the Sabine Women,” that explores the days of lynching. “I discovered that just by making a painting of a toy part, it could have a tremendous political ramification,” he said. “Although it’s specific, there is a certain universal quality that I express as an artist that is me but is larger than myself, more like what man experiences period.”
An academic as well as an artist, Hughes was a teacher at Pratt School of Design for more than 30 years, and has artwork in collections across the country, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the City Art Museum of St. Louis.
Though he calls Paris home now, it’s clear that his experience in St. Louis is one that lays deep in his soul, and perforates through his brush. “I think all artists, what they express, comes from their inner self,” he said. “All great art, I think, has a stamp of the personality of the artist.”
Hughes' work will be on view at 10th Street Gallery through May 4.