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African-American art helps frame a culture

"Y'aba" by Yvonne Osei, Portfolio's "Skin Stories" exhibit
Provided by the gallery
"Y'aba" by Yvonne Osei, Portfolio's "Skin Stories" exhibit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Art can change lives. For example, “365 Days with Dad” Artist Cbabi Bayoc hopes that when people view his positive images of African-American fathers, they’ll fold those perceptions into their belief systems. 

But you can’t be changed by what isn’t there. For many years, African-American art was absent or spotty in many collections.

Now more and more local arts organizations -- including our best known visual arts institution, the St. Louis Art Museum -- are purposely accumulating or exhibiting more African-American works.

As we examine the presence and impact of African-American art in St. Louis, we begin with a question: What defines it?

Who makes African-American art?

African-American visual art can be found in every genre including portraits, landscapes, still lifes and abstracts. The common denominator? Location and heritage, according to Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant at SLAM.

“It is works of art by artists, who are either from, residing in or used to reside in, very broadly, North America and surrounding areas, who are of African descent,” Turk said.

Her colleague, SLAM community and public programs director Renee Franklin, expanded that description to include the African diaspora and all works that address African-American culture. 

Franklin pointed to SLAM’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a 1937 oil painting by John McCrady, who is not black. It depicts an African-American person dying inside a house, over which an angel and the devil wrestle for the soul of the soon-to-be departed.

“McCrady spent a lot of time in the South and was really taken by its folklore so I would have no problem using that work in a program about African-American art,” Franklin said.

Erin Falker of Portfolio Gallery, whose mission is to promote African-American artists, agreed there are crossover examples but added that it’s much more difficult for a Caucasian artist to produce African-American art. George Sams of Metropolitan Gallery and its Nu-Art Series, which frequently features artists of color, offered another view. Sams indicated that efforts by Caucasians to make African-American art don’t always come from a place of authenticity.

“It’s done all the time,” Sams said. “This country is known for claim-jumping. It’s always been a country that knows how to clone and duplicate.”

Art and segregation

The importance of African-American art is similar to that of any other culture, according to Sams. But because African culture in this country was largely eradicated through slavery, African-Americans have had to rely heavily on scant documentation or memory when it comes visual art as well as music, he said.

“Blues and jazz and gospel were developed in this country by black musicians who didn’t have anything, historically,” Sams said.

Sams’ Nu-Art Series currently features works from the private Mwanga collection, including portraits of black writers and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Sams is interested in showing all varieties of cutting-edge work in his 16-year-old Locust Street gallery, regardless of the artists’ race. One of his goals is to bring multiculturalism to St. Louis.

“In New York, San Francisco, Chicago and even Atlanta, you have this good, rich cultural blend. It enriches your life so much,” Sams said. “But it’s very segregated here in St. Louis.”

Can you name an African-American artist?

Segregation separates not only people but also their cultural offerings. African-American art should not exist just for African-American enjoyment and enlightenment, Portfolio’s Falker pointed out.

“It’s everyone’s history and it affects everyone and touches everyone,” Falker said. “African-American artists have made such a large contribution to U.S. history and to have that history be unacknowledged is a tragedy.”

“Untitled,” still image from video by Yvonne Osei, Portfolio’s “Skin Stories” exhibition
Credit Provided by the gallery
“Untitled,” still image from video by Yvonne Osei, Portfolio’s “Skin Stories” exhibition

Beginning Nov. 3, Portfolio will present “Skin Stories: Storytelling and the Black Body,” an exhibit examining physical expression and the body in motion. The opening night event brings in Afriky Lolo West African dancers for a site-specific performance complimenting the exhibition.

Falker, a visual artist and dancer who began working with Portfolio founder Robert Powell in May, hopes the exhibit will help all St. Louisans become more familiar with African-American art.

“One of the questions Robert always asks people is, ‘Can you name five African-American artists?’ and the majority of people can’t do that,” Falker said.

It’s a situation SLAM’s Franklin sees regularly, as when she recently asked an adult group to name artists they’re familiar with.

“Everybody said, ‘Picasso and Michelangelo’ and rattled off like five of them,” Franklin said. “And then I asked them to name an African-American artist and no one could, because we weren’t taught that in high school.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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