NAIAS @ Cobo Hall, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Floor View of NAIAS

So last year, I wandered out onto the farthest fringe of the fine art community and made a decision to write about the 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). At the time I declared it to be an exhibition in the Detroit metro area worthy of our time and effort. Now, the new 2018 review comes on the heels of writing a review of Monet: Framing Life, an exhibition now at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In my 2017 Auto Show review, I gave recognition to the Eyes on Design competition and to the College for Creative Studies for their exemplary Transportation Design Program. In addition, I acknowledged all the fine artists who worked in the automotive design process by day, and do their own personal and private fine art work in their home studios on weekends and by night. I did this review based on attending the 2017 public viewing of the auto show, packed with a widely diverse audience of families and individuals from all walks of life. When the review was published, I did get positive feedback from NAIAS officials as they recommended that in 2018, I should apply for a press credential. For the 2017 Detroit Art Review, I went about my business and selected a luxury production car, the 2017 Lincoln Continental, as having the highest level of overall aesthetic appeal, followed up by my reasons for the selection and why.

There were critics, of course, both writers and artists who thought I had lost my mind by comparing the design elements of a car to the exhibition of paintings by Van Gogh or Edward Hopper, but many more could easily see the connection between the artisans who work in the automobile design departments and their personal artistic talent, of which many men and women exhibit in galleries, museums, and fine art competitions right here in Detroit.

But that was last year. In December of 2017, I contemplated a new review of 2018 NAIAS. Should I do another?  I began by applying for a press credential and was rejected and then rejected again on appeal. Then I approached the Chairman of the CCS Transportation Design program by email and asked for his input. He said he supported the idea whole-heartedly, but soon his emails stopped and he could not be reached. After the rejection by NAIAS for press access, they suggested that I should simply attend one of the Industry Preview Days. I did that and paid dearly for the, um, privilege. $110 for the ticket, $15 for parking and $4 to hang up my coat, all in a good effort to provide publicity and good will to the auto industry. (I am happy to report that using the men’s room is still free.)

Audi V-10 R8 Coupe convertible

The first thing I bumped into on the showroom floor was the new Audi R8 V-10 sports coupe powered by a 10-cylinder gas guzzling engine with a 14mpg (they may have fudged on the mileage). Considering the price tag of $175,000, that seemed like enough money and cylinders for four cars.

I moseyed up to a high platform where the view consisted of thousands of white men, aged 30-60 years old, in dull slacks, dress shirts, short hair, and glasses. Many were clustered in groups and held an itemized pad for notes and iPhones for taking pictures.

Several times I asked those working the show what was meant by Industry Preview Day. Their responses varied greatly. “Mostly engineers…looking at the competition,” or “VIPs from headquarters” or “today is for the auto designers and their teams,” or “it’s mostly a perk for suppliers or dealers.” My guess is they all were provided with a free ticket.

Bluntly, it was a sea of Caucasian men as far as I could see. I did see an African American security guard in a red coat, and an African American cleaning lady, in that same red coat. To be fair, there might have been one or two women there, probably VIP spouses, and a few Asian engineers. Notable were several undercover police officers with sniffer dogs, and at each entrance, African American security guards (in their red coats) doing body scans with an electronic wand. Well, good. I felt safe, but there was a new experience ahead.

As you might recall or imagine, the Cobo exhibition hall is a large, circular space filled, in this case, with very expensive sets are individually designed and assigned to each automobile manufacturer. What I didn’t expect to see was a section devoted to automotive suppliers. I guess that means more revenue for NAIAS and Cobo Hall.

The first supplier exhibit I came across was Aramco Transport Technologies, which provides technology that improves mileage, emissions, and efficiency. I asked a representative where their headquarters were, and they said, Novi, Michigan. Apparently, they are also located in other parts of the world, like Paris, France. When pressed, they said they were a division of Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the state-owned oil company that is the world’s top exporter of oil and natural gas.

To be fair, Aramco has developed a Mobile Carbon Capture technology that captures the Co2 before it leaves the car, which is then stored and unloaded for reuse. Although there were electric cars, like Volkswagen’s concept car, in most of the displays, but I did not see a supplier of passive energy sources for automotive use.

There was Denso North America, leaders in corrosion prevention and sealant technology, headquartered in Kariya, Japan. There was a large display by Aisin Group that specialized in powertrain components, also head quartered in Japan, but I asked myself; who is coming to NAIAS to look into the technical parts of a car or cross-sections of a transmission? Are they lobbyists? I would be remiss if I did not mention the Michelin Tire Display, fudge from Kyba’s Mackinaw Island and the candied almond vendor.

2018 Lincoln Continental

But back to my mission to find a car that has the highest level of overall aesthetic appeal, which leads me to another revelation: The design of production cars changes very slowly, as this year’s models demonstrated. I was drawn back inexorably to the Lincoln Continental. The understatement of line, shape, and proportion still provides the viewer with a feeling of strength and security. The lines curve down and inward, an aesthetic sometimes seen in European sports cars. The repetition of roundness is soothing. Stylish elements abound, like the way the E-latch door handles provide a graceful inset in the side door, and five LED lamps create a slender design to what used to be a larger headlamp.

2018 Lincoln Continental Grill Detail

The front grill is refined, delicate and proportionate to the front profile, while the small openings in the grill repeat a similar shape of the car logo. A sleek console serves to open up the cabin, while the sophisticated push-button gearshift integrates seamlessly with classic knobs and buttons. The leather-wrapped, hand-stitched steering wheel is mounted ahead of a 12.3-inch fully configurable digital instrument cluster that displays easy-to-read driver information clearly. Sitting in the car, looking closely at its design elements, I was left with what I experienced last year, which is that the Lincoln Motor Company, the luxury automotive brand of Ford Motor Company, is committed to creating an exquisitely designed vehicle that places itself above their competitors.

2018 Lincoln Continental fron interior

 

Everything I experienced with the cars themselves remains the same, particularly when it came to recognizing the designers who work hard at deserving their much-earned success around the world. As I mentioned, NAIAS has its own Eyes on Design program, and this year they gave the KIA Stinger their choice for Best Production Car award. (South Korea is hosting this years Winter Olympics) If you’re curious, the awards are decided on by four chief judges, and thirty-two regular judges who must work together on a process that I cannot imagine, but it is their official program, highly honored and celebrated. Congratulations! But as for my experience with NAIAS 2018 Industry Preview Day, it was enlightening and disappointing. The cars were sleek and shiny, the crowd was bland, and the diversity of people packed into Cobo Hall on this day…was racially offensive.

NAIAS 2018 @ Cobo Hall, Detroit

 

 

 

 

NAIAS 2017 @ Cobo Hall, Detroit

2017 Charity Preview

2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) Charity Preview Event

What is now known as the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) began as an event in 1899. The first official Detroit Auto Show was held in 1907 at Beller’s Beer Garden in Riverview Park, where a total of 33 new motor vehicles were shown by 17 vendors, and spectator admission was 50 cents.

So, you wonder, why are you reading about a car exhibition in the Detroit Art Review? We’ll answer that question with a question: How many people who are responsible for the creation of an automobile attended art school? Plenty, as it turns out.

Every week, we at the Detroit Art Review explore the work of artists in galleries and museums in the Detroit Metro Area, but we’ve never tipped our hats to the men and women who contribute to the aesthetics of an automobile. Because we are doing our work here in Detroit, the home of the automobile and most of the automotive industry, it seems fitting to mention an annual event that contributes $500 million to our local economy. More than 800,000 attendees last year and press from all around the world gathered to see the new cars produced that provide a basic staple of American culture: Individualized Transportation. NAIAS has displayed the wares of the automotive industry, a million square feet of it, at Cobo Hall since 1967.

Not to take away from the prestige of the event over all, but the design work that goes into an automobile is recognized by EyesOn Design Awards, which are the sine qua non design awards in the industry, sponsored by the Henry Ford Health System, Department of Ophthalmology. As proof of design excellence, consider a production car that rises to the top in terms of aesthetic appeal: the 2017 Lincoln Continental.

Lincoln_Approach_Detection_2017_Continental

Ford Motor Company, Lincoln Continental, 2017

The understatement of line, shape and proportion provides the viewer with a feeling of strength and security. It is not a pointed, aggressive look, but a mature profile in its approach to visual stability. The lines curve down and inward, an aesthetic seen sometimes in European sports cars. The repetition of roundness is soothing. Stylish elements abound, like the way the E-latch door handles provide a graceful inset in the side door, and five LED lamps create a slender design to what used to be a larger headlamp. The front grill is refined, delicate and proportionate to the front profile, unlike the majority of cars these days that feature a sweeping, forward design with pointed grills, like the V-Motion Nissan sports look, something you might see on a Star Trek movie set, or the Lexus grill that reaches down so low to the street it seems designed to collect debris.

Ford Motor Company, Lincoln Continental, 2017

Growing up and now working in Detroit, I was always acutely aware of the design and engineering sensibility in the metro area that dominated our psyche. For instance, the Sunday New York Times relegates automobile coverage to the business section, while there are two sections devoted entirely to the Arts. In Detroit, there has always been an Auto section in the Sunday Detroit newspapers and no Arts section. Yet the people of Detroit and the tri-county area supported a millage to keep the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) intact. They knew intrinsically that the fine arts were important to our quality of life, and voters made a substantial ten-year commitment to help support the DIA in a time when bankruptcy threatens our city. The Center for Creative Studies has developed an extraordinary Transportation Design program that works closely with the automotive industry to help prepare young designers to meet the technological needs of a changing work force. I know clay sculptors who form the full-scale prototypes at the General Motors Technology Center, and they often exhibit their hand thrown pottery at local art exhibitions.

So at the beginning of each year, the North American International Auto Show displays the new products of an American industry in which artistic design elements, both interior, and exterior, play a vital role. I, for one, am proud to be from Detroit and active in its art community, which includes all the men and women who work to design beautiful products. For those who attend the show or see the Lincoln Continental on the road, take a close look at the design elements and how they personify the rich aesthetics of a luxury car, and remember the Continental was made by artists and engineers here in Detroit.

 

 

 

 

Fall Exhibitions 2018 @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center kicked off its 2018 fall season with contrasting exhibitions by Dick Goody and Anne Gilman. 

Dick Goody exhibition at the BBAC main gallery, Install image. 2018

At the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, in the Kantgais / DeSalle Gallery, Dick Goody, Professor of Art and Chair of Oakland University’s Department of Art and Art History, serves up expressionistic painting that continues along on his path of depicting a universe of figures, landscape and still life that feel at times autobiographical. The oil on canvas works are flat, nuanced, ambiguous and reflect a somewhat consistent color palate, especially his repeated use of his selected color of red.  What has left his subject matter from previous work is the direct use of words and writing passages, that in the past work would often dominate the composition.  In this exhibition, The Garden City, Goody’s painting seems like a cross between early figurative work by the English artist David Hockney, and the black outlines used by the German expressionistic painter Max Beckmann as in his work Quappi in Grey, 1948.  These Goody paintings are not copied from any reality, but rather are a style of painting where the artist seeks to express an emotional experience reflecting his environment: cutting the grass, reading a book, playing the piano, observing an object or having a meal.

Dick Goody, Haberman Cutting the Grass, Oil on Canvas, 54 x 36″, 2017

In the painting, Haberman Cutting the Grass,  we see Goody’s persona, Haberman, cutting a small patch of grass,  maybe in an English village, or an older Detroit 1920’s neighborhood, perhaps fueled by nostalgia from growing up in England. There is a real economy of form and color that accompany this figure-centered composition. With the character’s mouth open, we wonder what he is saying. Not that it matters.

Dick Goody, Zeilwand Lieb, Oil on Canvas, 82 x 65″, 2018

Clearly, these images are figments of an imagination that is autobiographical and asks the question: Can you ever really get beyond yourself? In the work, Zeilwand Lieb, the character is sitting at the piano in a theatrical form of “white face” while spring trees shed their pedaled flowers, Goody’s figurative persona ponders a musical manuscript. He selects his objects carefully and adds a touch of serialism to this expressionistic picture.  Inside or outside… or both?

I sat down with the artist and asked a few questions.

Ron ScottHow would describe your interest in painting from an earlier age onward?

Dick Goody – When I was a kid – I loved old sailing ships – like the ones Admiral Lord Nelson commanded at the Battle of Trafalgar. I spent hours and hours drawing rigging and sea battles. Out of the blue, when I was eight, I did a painting of popsicles: primary colors outlined in black – really, if you think about it, not a lot has changed – and the teacher put it on the wall. I remember it because things like that never happened.

At the art school interview, they said: “Tell us about your vision?” I had difficulty being serious about being serious. So I stared into space and said I wanted to do horses and astronauts. At the end, they said: “Ah, so you’re a history painter. “My first painting was of Clint Eastwood against this brutalist architectural background. My tutors hated it. They said: “Chill out and loosen up.” After three years of this I ended up doing simplified paintings of aeroplanes, but the moment I graduated I started doing scenario paintings again, pictures of food or people. I did a huge painting of a hunk of Stilton followed by a small roll of toilet paper picture – bought, incidentally, by an art historian, of all people.

Ron Scott – What kind of personal experiences best inform your work?

Dick Goody – All sorts of things. I mean it’s my life. Someone asked me why there’s an ironing board in one of the paintings. I live in a 1920s Tudor in Detroit and I saw this photo of David Bowie in his first house, Haddon Hall, which was a large Tudor revival in Kent, and there’s an ironing board in the living room and it made me remember how people in the UK do their ironing wherever there’s a TV. There’s a piano in several paintings and there wouldn’t be if I didn’t have one. There’s another painting of two people having dinner called Too Many New York Dinners and it’s about the whole adventure of dining out there, which after a while becomes no adventure at all, just something that’s going to eat up three exhausting hours.

Ron Scott – A few years back when we had lunch, you mentioned to me that you thought painting was “dead”? Am I right about that and has that idea undergone a change?

Dick Goody – If it was before 2006, I may have said that, but I can’t remember. It’s a stupid thing to say. Painting is immortal, isn’t it? But sometimes we go through periods when it seems to be on life support. Right now, it’s full of life. So yes, it’s changed, but it’s always changing. There’s a lot of diversity in painting right now in every sense.

Ron Scott – Do you see any relationship between your curatorial work and your painting?

Dick Goody – Don’t do both on the same day. I wouldn’t want to defuse a bomb when picking up my brushes either. In the studio, I shut everything else out. There has to be a firewall between the two things. Curating is about the macro; it’s all-encompassing. It follows protocols. There are all sorts of systems in place and multiple external reasons for one’s decisions. Painting is like getting in a car in your painting clothes without a clear idea of where you’re going – let’s just say that when I’m painting I’m not thinking about the skill and discernment it takes to organize exhibitions – I only care about the paint and the action in front of me. Truly, in the studio, on any given day, I have no idea where I’m going to end up.

Ron Scott – Could you explain more about the environments that you create in this universe of yours. ? 

Dick Goody – There are not that many things: reading, playing the piano, a long evening meal, work, my house, the garden, traveling. It’s a very narrow universe, but it has to be. But the universe of one’s paintings is an immense region and full of digression, hidden pathways and side trips – and adventures, infatuations, and fixations.

Dick Goody, What are you taking about?, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 48″, 2018

As the artist explores his Garden City with its landscapes, personas, domestic norms, and objects of interest, he has created this imaginary world.  The work, now void of literary statements, books, and characters from his dystopian novella, Goody has turned introspective, and I contend, nostalgic. Strong compositions, are supported with vivid color palette and black line.  In the work What are you talking about?, Goody has his painting, Haberman Cutting the Grass,  inside the composition and a target on his back, where he becomes the center of the universe, asking the female character, what are you talking about? They’re talking about art.

Dick Goody earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He also holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Art and Design Education from Middlesex University. Goody’s own paintings have been featured in nine solo shows and over forty group exhibitions in London, New York and Detroit.

 

Anne Gilman – Up Close / in the Distance / Now,  Conceptual Works on Paper

Anne Gilman, BBAC Robison Gallery, install image, 2018

As part of the opening season at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, the Robinson Gallery hosts the work of Anne Gilman, a native of Brooklyn, NY whose work is made up of drawing and writing on large sheets of paper where she displays her thoughts and feelings combined with color patches that in some cases reflect a mood or psychological state of being.  These works could be described as maps that delve into personal explorations of the artist combined with events in the outside world.

Anne Gilman, Boiling Point, Ink, pencil, on Mulberry paper, 2018

What this viewer experiences in the piece Boiling point,is a combination of literary expression, a confluence of material, and a concern for composition and color. The work on paper is often monochromatic in that there is a preference for a red theme, or blue theme that combines horizontal line work with cursive writing, intentionally not legible.

Gilman says, “I often work on paper that is larger than my body so I can sit on top of it and become immersed in its space. I rule out lines for extemporaneous writing and create confined spaces that contain layers of color, texture and tape. I use my own response to personal, political, and social concerns as the starting point for creating a mapping of information, thought, and emotion. Keywords and phrases reference ideas that emerge as I work while large expanses of texture reference an inscrutable landscape or atmosphere that I create as a safe or calm space.”

Anne Gilman, You might wait forever, Pencil, graphite, ink, BIC pen, tape on paper, 2018

 

Often her work is triggered by an event, be it political, social or personal, where she makes her selection of color and writing, where the mapping of information is secondary to the layout of space, color and composition. I refer to the work as conceptual in the open, meaning work where the concept or idea behind the work is more important that the finished art object, but this work could be easily described as drawing / installation.  Her concerns as an artist address her concerns as a person that seems to be launched based on a psychological state of being.   What is added to this exhibition alongside each work is a passage where the artist articulates background information that takes on an educational component designed to inform the work.  Here is an example of what accompanies this work of art, You Might Wait Forever.

“This drawing was made after a protracted illness, so much of the text is a referencing to a reorganizing of priorities.”

An excerpt from Gilman’s extemporaneous writing:  “Thinking about the degree of calm or letting go I had when I was sick, the paradox of finding some strange peace or knowledge that there was no fighting the state I was in.  I was able to finally enter a non-doing state, a place where I gave into each moment and had complete clarity of what my limitations were.  When you are that sick, there’s no more pushing and thinking of all the “shoulds.”  When you are that sick, each moment has a particular kind of clarity about what is needed or not needed. Maintaining that clarity as you get well, that is the hard part.”

Anne Gilman, The Place of possibility, Pencil, paint, tape on paper, 2016

More abstract than others, Gilman”s The place of possibility, conveys as a reminder that you never know the end of a story. More open space, perforated line, less color,  and various text that addresses the steps taken to achieve clarity, perhaps at the center of the piece.

Anne Gilman earned her BFA/Painting, State University of New York at New Paltz and MFA/Drawing and Painting from Brooklyn College, NYC.  She teaches in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Pratt Institute, NYC.

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center current exhibitions run through October 11, 2018.

Photorealism @ Flint Institute of Arts

From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today

Davis Cone, American, born 1950. State-Autumn Evening, 2002. Acrylic on canvas. 26 1/2 × 46 ½” Collection of John Gordon.

According to the ancient historian Pliny the Elder, two rival artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, once had a public competition to determine which of the two was the better painter.  When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of a bowl of grapes, the story goes that they were so realistic that birds approached the painting and pecked at it.  Convinced he had won, Zeuxis turned to his rival and asked him to unveil his painting.  But Zeuxis had been deceived; Parrhasius had merely painted a very realistic image of a veil, which had fooled not just Zeuxis, but everyone present, and he was thus declared the winner.  The tradition of hyper-realistic painting never died, and even in the 20thcentury when abstract expressionism took the world by storm, some artists chose instead to rebel against the rebels by creating paintings that rivaled photography in their realism.  Through August 12, a fine survey of the first and second generation of photorealist painters is on view at the Flint Institute of Arts, emphatically making the point that the realist tradition is alive and well.

Robert Bechtle, American, born 1932. ’73 Malibu, 1974. Oil on canvas. 48 × 69 inches, Meisel Family Collections, New York

The show snugly fills the spacious Hedge and Henry galleries at the FIA, and traces the history of photorealism from 1969 through the present.  The movement began in densely populated areas in America’s east and west coasts, and the subject matter frequently featured the stuff of urban life.  Early photorealist artists like John Salt and Robert Bechtle produced candid images of automobiles, going out of their way to not beautify the mechanized, industrial world of postwar America. John Salt’s Albuquerque Wreckyarddepicts a junkyard populated with abandoned cars.  Although the scene is unidealized, Salt flaunts his deft ability to connivingly translate reflective chrome surfaces into paint, and the effect is visually striking.  The painting also works as understated social commentary on consumption and waste.  Tom Blackwell’s arrestingly large paintings take a different approach, focusing instead on the aesthetics of the wiring and mechanical components beneath the hood.  His Indian’s Chopper Modified ’57 Harley offers us a close-up of the inner workings of a motorcycle.  Divorced from any frame of reference or context, the highly reflective chrome and the intricacies of the engine components almost become a work of abstract art.

John Salt, English, born 1937. Albuquerque Wreck Yard (Sandia Auto Electric), 1972. Oil on canvas. 48 × 72″, Meisel Family Collections, New York

This exhibition makes clear that there are different approaches to photorealism.  Some artists wanted their paintings to quite literally translate photographs into paint, replete with points of sharp focus in the foreground and blurring and distortion in the background.  Audrey Flack’s iconic 20thcentury vanitas Wheel of Fortune, is a good example.  And at almost ten feet square, this monumental painting is arguably the star of the show.  Other artists believed that painting could actually improve on photography.  Richard Estes’s cityscapes portray the world in extreme lucidity—both foreground and background retain crisp focus.  Strictly speaking, Estes is a photorealist, but his paintings certainly don’t look like photos.

Audrey Flack, American, born 1931. Wheel of Fortune, 1977–1978. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 96 × 96″, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York. Gift of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel, 2016.20

The show divides the exhibition into two sections, representing the first and second generations of photorealists.  Unlike the pioneers of the style, the artists of the second generation have more technology at their disposal, such as the use of computer software to assist in the transfer of a photo onto canvass.  The works of contemporary photorealists are every bit as satisfying as those of the pioneers of the movement.  Yigal Ozeri blows up small photographs into huge paintings, and his ability to convincingly translate the sparkly dance of sunlight striking ripples in Mediterranean waters into paint is virtuosic.  Perhaps the most convincing work in the show might ironically be the most passed-over, simply because it looks too deceptively real to even be a painting; in a witty demonstration of trompe l’oielwizardry at its finest, we’re deceived into thinking a cardboard box filled with money is resting under glass on a pedestal. It’s in fact a carefully-painted wooden sculpture.

Ralph Goings, American, born 1928. Miss Albany Diner, 1993. Oil on canvas. 48 × 72”, Heiskell Family Collection

The visual force of these works gets lost in translation when they’re photographed and reproduced in diminutive form in print or online.  Only in person, for example, looking at Richerd Estes’s Plaza, a cityscape crammed with busy details, do we see that the artist rendered the socks of a foreground figure with a few scribbled in, almost impressionistic brushstrokes.  And the playful ripples in Jack Mendenhall’s Pointe Hilton, when seen close, reveal themselves to be horizontal swipes of paint, bristle-strokes clearly visible.  I was reminded of Rembrandt who, in his 1654 portrait of Jan Six,shows the subject standing with gloved hands; but zoom in close on the gloves, and we see a calculatedly scribbled mess that might just as well be a detail from a de Kooning abstraction.  So while the artists on view are unmistakably contemporary, the tradition in which they work extends through the centuries all the way back to the likes of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  And From Lens to Eye to Hand emphatically makes the point that even in a world oversaturated with photographic images–  almost exclusively in the form of advertisements– traditional painting triumphantly retains its enduring relevance.

Flint Institute of Arts: From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today – through August 12, 2018

 

 

African Bead Work @ Flint Institute of Art

Ubhule Women: Bead Work and the Art of Independence at the Flint Institute of Art

Zondile Zondo. I am ill, I still see Color and Beauty: Jamludi The Red Cow, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 49 × 64 1/4 × 2 in. (124.5 × 163.2 × 5.1 cm). Private Collection.

In 1999, two South African women, Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson, established an artist’s community on a former sugar plantation in the rural outskirts north of Durban. The goal of the Ubuhle (Ub-buk-lay, Zulu for “beauty”) community was to use traditional bead-art as a way for women to develop a skilled trade and become financially independent. Since then, the work created by this small, tightly-knit group has experienced meteoric success and has been shown internationally, including an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2013. Through the end of March, Ubhule Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence ambitiously fills the spacious Hodge Galleries at the Flint Institute of Art, and is well worth the visit.

Zondile Zondo. Flowers for the Gods, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 51 × 21 3/8 × 2 in. (129.5 × 54.3 × 5.1 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection.

This is an exhibition that can only be experienced firsthand; the arresting luminosity of these textile and bead-works, much like the ethereal shimmer of light on a Byzantine mosaic, is entirely lost when reproduced in photographs. The Ubuhle women created a modern innovation on traditional South-African bead-art; they stretch textile (ndwango) across a canvass, into which they meticulously hand-sew tens of thousands of infinitesimal Czech glass beads. The completed result recalls Seurat’s pointillism, but enhanced with striking luster as the images reflect actual light. These ndwangos range from figurative to abstract, and the vibrant plains of color deny any sense of illusory depth. Visitors who lean in close will notice the artists frequently applied the beads in a complex array of circular patterns and spirals, another special-effect that doesn’t translate well in photographs.

Ubuhle Women comprises 30 works by five artists, and the subject matter is intensely personal, often making use of abstract symbols to reference autobiographical events. Some works pay tribute to those of the Ubuhle community who have died since its founding from HIV (about half its number); red ribbons are a recurrent motif. The time-consuming process of bead-sewing itself functions as a form of therapy and coping—just one panel can take nearly a year to complete. For the Ubuhle women, beading is both catharsis and a visceral way to make tangible the memories of those lost.

Nontanga Manguthsane. African Crucifixion, n.d. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 177 1/2 × 275 3/4 × 16 inches (450.9 × 700.4 × 40.6 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection & Private Collection

The culmination of the exhibition is the ambitiously-large African Crucifixion, a sprawling work comprising seven panels created by seven Ubhule women. Originally conceived as a visual focal-point for the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermartzburg, South Africa, the work is a complex tableau that addresses specific local issues like apartheid and the HIV crisis, as well as broader, universal themes of life, death, and redemption. A suspended golden crucifix dominates the composition, flanked by a menacing Tree of Defeat (replete with vultures, representing politicians who feed off people) and the Tree of Life, comfortably situated in an idyllic, fertile landscape. In the panel depicting Mary and John at the foot of the cross, a white house in the background personalizes the image, uncannily reminiscent of Thando Ntobela’s reductive portrayal of the Ubuhle community in her 2011 work Goodbye Little Farm. The African Crucifixion is a triumphant and virtuosic demonstration of the potential of beadwork, every bit as grand and pathos-driven as an early Renaissance fresco.

Looking at these works, my initial response was to mentally liken them to comparable works of art with which I was already familiar; the bright, smack-you-with-color fauvist paintings of Matisse, for example (and there really is a resemblance).   But these ndwangos, as luminous as they are allusive, pugnaciously defy any easy comparison with any equivalent in Western art. Furthermore, they represent the power of art to—in a small way—affect real social change, as demonstrated by the determined effort of the Ubuhle women who, through their craft, achieved financial independence one glass bead at a time.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC in cooperation with Curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.

Flint Institute of Art  – through March 2018