Broadening a Vision
By Stacy Davies
One of the most interesting things to view when surveying imagery of groups traditionally underrepresented in our culture are things we’ve never seen before—depictions that do not fit the stereotypes we’ve come to accept (both positive and negative) and images that might have previously been hidden from our mainstream view. A photograph of aviatrix Florence “Pancho” Barnes (who broke Amelia Earhart’s speed record in 1930), for example, or a picture of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, still elicit reactions of surprise and intrigue, because that’s just not what we think women do with their time.
Likewise, in art we are exposed to few figurative images that are not derived from the white male European perspective (which includes an abundance of women caring for children, engaged in housework and idle pastimes—or simply nude). When other races are present in art, most specifically prior to WWII, they’re often expressed in tribal or native form, or, in the case of the Black American, as servants, minstrels, field hands and slaves. Seeking to broaden that palette, Dr. Samella Lewis championed African American art during her tenure at Scripps College (1970-1984), widening the curriculum to include non-European art and acquiring a collection of African sculptures for the university. Lewis spent most of her life, in fact, bringing to the public’s attention a wealth of art created by non-white artists, and as a historian, museum founder (of the first African American Museum in Los Angeles) and an artist herself, changed the way many of us—white, non-white, artists and audience—experience African American imagery.
The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s new exhibition, “African American Visions” is a tribute to Dr. Lewis’ perseverance and vision, and with the help of alumna and artist Alison Saar, LACMA curator Mary Nooter Roberts, and others, museum director Mary MacNaughton has assembled a healthy sampling of the Lewis acquisitions, including newer additions by both Saar and her pioneering artist mother, Betye. The result is a mix of what we might come to expect from a show featuring Black imagery—the standard jazz musicians, day laborers and civil rights era actions—yet also includes things we haven’t necessarily seen before, such as a black couple having lunch at a non-segregated café in 1966.
While all of the artworks are worthy, it is within these non-traditional depictions that real ground is broken. Even something as subtle as Palmer Hayden’s graphite on paper sketch, Sugar Hill Park, NYC from 1925, in which a group of men play dice, draws us in. It’s an idle pastime in a field; all of the men are nicely dressed and no one is drinking or smoking—these are not rabid gamblers, down on their luck, which is the usual motif of dice-throwers. This simple depiction is therefore transformed into a powerful message about what we expect to see versus the reality of what is seen. Benny Andrews’ lithograph, New York, 20min, mentioned earlier, also expands cultural history. Even though it’s the mid-1960s, this lunching African American couple are not relegated to a dingy coffee stop or segregated to a special section—but they also do not exist in some fantasy parallel universe where all civil rights troubles have subsided. Instead, they sit together in New York and have a meal. Nothing else needs to happen in order for us to grasp the power of what we are seeing: this reality existed, even if the majority of black Americans were unable to experience it.
But why are such images important? Call it “the politics of normalcy”—the idea that while a minority group should embrace their history and express their reality, there is also room for representations that are subversive in their challenge, that highlight similarity among people as opposed to disparity. This, in fact, makes those representations even more powerful.
Other pieces also fall into this category. Elizabeth Catlett’s Dancing, in which stylish men and women elegantly sway to the music, is stunning and void of any specific cultural markers. And in Jacob Lawrence’s Harlem Street Scene from 1975, the artist chooses to highlight a perfectly ordinary, uneventful night in town; there is no glitz, no poverty and no problems—just regular people enjoying a regular, pleasant evening.
Most of the other work in the exhibition has a distinct cultural filter, and pieces such as Catlett’s gorgeous Madonna, featuring a serene African American woman and child, and Camille Billops’ cleverly chilling KKK Boutique remind us of both the absence of representation in white cultural history and the harsh reality of the Black American experience. Both references are as important as normalcy, of course, and can shock and shake any imbedded stereotypes or tendency to gloss over the past. They will make you think, like all of the pieces in this show—think, rethink and revise. This was the calling of Dr. Samella Lewis, after all, and as such, this assembling is a poignant and powerful tribute.
“African American Visions” at Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, 251 E. 11th St., Claremont, (909) 621-8000; www.scrippscollege.edu/williamson-gallery. Open Wed-Sun, 1pm-5pm. Thru Oct. 14. Free.