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African American Art and Life

Flomenhaft Gallery
547 West 27th Street, Suite 308, 212-268-4952
January 2 - February 28, 2009
Reception: Thursday, January 8, 6 - 8 PM
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Billops, The exhibit, “African American Art and Life,” is an extravaganza of the Flomenhaft Gallery collection, and also two invited artists, Camille Billops and photographer, Builder Levy. Artists’ works from the gallery collection include Emma Amos, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Beverly Buchanan, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Charles Lloyd Tucker and Carrie Mae Weems.

With skill and glee, Camille Billops uses racial caricatures to lure us into a nasty place as in “Old Black Joe – the Friendship,” “Who’s Dat Nigga Dar a Peepin,” and “KKK Boutique.” In the latter work, imagine the Ku Klux Klan coming into a black boutique to purchase their silly cloaks and ridiculous headpieces. Billops says that her art and the Hatch-Billops Foundation are about “victory over obscurity and ignorance, and confirmation of herself.”

As a young artist in the early 1960s, Builder Levy discovered that with photography, more than any other medium, he could express the inspiration he felt in response to the richness and vitality of African American life and culture. His richly gold-toned gelatin silver print photograph, March on Washington, 1963, an intense and beautiful candid portrait of a woman framed within the multiracial multitude of that momentous demonstration of hope, embodies the enduring humanity of 400 years of the African American freedom struggle.

Levy, “March on Washington”What makes Emma Amos’ art so powerful as in “Carnivale,” is the sustained tension which follows her alternation between references to delightful memories, her love of music and especially rhythm. In this work, she borders the painting with African fabrics; others she will weave herself since she is a master weaver.

What more can be said about the cynosure of this exhibit, Romare Bearden? It is worth making the pilgrimage if only to see “Up at Mintons,” a collage with painted elements for which Bearden was the absolute master. The work offers a microcosmic view of the jazz musicians’ life after their gigs, when they came to Minton’s during the Harlem Renaissance days and played their hearts out by the light of the moon. With Bearden’s sure hand the elements respond to each other, structuring space, emotion and mood. No wonder it was the work chosen by the Bearden Foundation for a picture puzzle sold in many museums. Another, “Maternity/Ancestral Legend,” 1972, is a metaphor for motherhood with a compelling power that freezes the images in our minds. When UNICEF was searching for the perfect Madonna and child for Christmas cards, at least 15 years ago, they asked to reproduce this one and it is no wonder they still use it as one of their holiday choices.

The ink drawing from 1974 that we include by Benny Andrews was done ten years after Congress gave President Johnson the right to do whatever he deemed necessary to defend South East Asia, after ten years of bloodshed in Vietnam, after more than 57,000 American servicemen were killed, and American pilots and crews of downed aircrafts were taken to horrific prisons. Benny Andrew’s drawing of a mother’s scream for her son lying dead in a pool of blood across a cavernous emptiness is as passionate as any American mother could feel today for her sons as they are killed daily in Iraq. The chasm between mother and son provides the space for viewers to contemplate and share every mother’s loss.

Beverly Buchanan’s shack architecture in paintings and sculpture are poetic works as rich in dignity as they are in complexity. They evoke the spectra of people, places, and a culture that was fast disappearing in the byways of North and South Carolina, of people that could neither read nor write but raised children who became doctors, lawyers and all forms of creative adults. The pastel paintings of shacks are vibrant with the vitality and the dignity of the poor farmers who lived in the shacks and raised families in improvised lives. The works are abstracted with emotions emphasized with rhythms created by unruly brush strokes and a childlike scribbled overlay. She says of her work that “it is as much about evoking the state of mind of undaunted spirits as defining an opposition in space.” And each of her makeshift sculptures, created out of scavenged materials, she calls a “portrait,” in homage to an artist who lived in a shack or a friend she made along her trek.

Whereas we know Jacob Lawrence’s art best by his harsh reminders of social and political injustices, the work on view here is a nostalgic ink drawing. Done in 1961, it is entitled, “Chess On Broadway.” Lawrence was born in 1917 and at age thirteen came to live in Harlem. At Utopian Children’s House, a day care center, he learned from Charles Alston the idea of representing his ideas in a personal language. The way he came to emphasize shapes, lines, patterns and movement became his hallmark. It is certainly apparent in the drawing in our exhibit. We would not have to say the author of this work for it to immediately call out his name. The preoccupation of the players is so perfectly depicted in his boldly distinctive style and the groupings so carefully orchestrated with a perfection of angular austerity, that it is hard to imagine any artist besting this work to communicate that time, place or involvement in a game.

Faith Ringgold is a quintessential story-teller and a remarkable artist. The work in our exhibit, “Double Dutch on the Golden Gate Bridge,” 1988, is one of four quilts about being free to go and do whatever one can wish for. In this case it is being free to play a favorite after-school street game of black girls in Harlem but transferred to the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. Of course, it is Harlem in the background where Faith grew up, not the Golden Gate which opens into the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Being free is the basis of Faith’s philosophy and foundation, “Anyone Can Fly.”

How fortunate are we to exhibit the works of photographer, Carrie Mae Weems. She uses a graphic device with Silk-Screened texts which gives the photographs that added punch. “Blue Black Boy,” “Chocolate Colored Man,” and “High Yella Girl,” each serves up memorial salvos of anti-bigotry.
Have photos of this show? Tag them with artcal-8558 to see them here.