Peter Williams @ MOCAD & Trinosophes

Where do Black people go during times fraught with pain and sorrow?

Installation Image Peter Williams: Black Universe, MOCAD

Peter Williams’ query is one with a storied lineage within the Black community. Over the course of 45 years, Williams, a senior professor of painting at the University of Delaware with time spent in the Detroit arts community and as a professor at Wayne State University, has tackled problematic social structures of white supremacy and discrimination with uncensored perspectives. Curious and inquisitive, he is often in a state of mental travel and critical culture investigation within his practice.

These themes set the foundation of Peter Williams: Black Universe, an Afro-futuristic narrative that takes the viewer on a journey through consciousness and pursuit of a better life. Within this universe, Williams creates a melanated race who travels to outer space with hopes to discover new planet homes and an end to systemic constructs of oppression, racism and injustice.

Co-curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Rebecca Mazzei, Peter Williams: Black Universe exhibits at Trinosophes and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) through January 21, 2021. The installation is experimental and actively fuses abstract strokes with contemporary figuration. Narration and Transitions at Trinosophes begins as a meditation. Its energizing colors, use of repetition and symmetric designs flirt with sensuality, sarcasm, spirituality and identity. Through use of abstraction, Mazzei notes that the viewer is experiencing a “painter’s painter” working through ideas and experiments that create space to sort through ideas.

Peter Williams, OWL, 2019, Oil on Canvas; 24×20 inches

 

Peter Williams, SQUEEZE II, Oil on Canvas; 24×30 inches

Bird Man closes Narration and Transitions. The active piece steers from the serene and transitions to dark humor and an evolving narrative. The larger canvas preludes Williams’ Black Exodus suite of paintings on view at MOCAD. The figurative composition is a self-portrait of the artist after a major surgery. A bit disoriented, the subject sits, appearing unbothered, in the middle of the frame with a dragon devouring his slumped body. Movement seems to be controlled by the wizardry figure in the lower right corner raising its wand. This sense of energy and twist on a thematic composition that could be viewed as defeat, may be informing what’s to come.

Peter Williams, BIRD MAN, 2019 Oil on Canvas; 48×60 inches

 

Peter Williams, SPECTACLE, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 48×48 inches

MOCAD’s Black Exodus gets to the gristle of the narrative using color as a luring factor toward bigger ideas and societal confrontations on large canvas. Here, Williams uses dark humor, allegory, art history, and witty satire as a way to challenge us to confront the truths about society and ourselves.

In Spectacle, blackness is on display. The tone is blunt and touches on the eerie and invasive feeling of being watched and observed. The figures are constructing the building blocks of their new alien planet. Wearing garments from historical myths, they have a heightened awareness of their surroundings but make no effort to perform, if you will, or oblige the onlookers’ expectation for something to happen. The last laugh, however, is owned by the “spectacle” with his sharp, hard gaze refocusing the lens by peering through a monocle implying a shared curiosity and the discomfort of surveillance.

Peter Williams, BLACK PEOPLE’S OIL, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 72×96 inches

Ossei-Mensah worked with Williams in 2018, for a show at the CUE Art Foundation, and speaks to the allure of Williams’ knowledge and experimentation with color theory. “It’s a common place to enter while suggesting that you spend more time not only looking at the full picture composition but paying attention to the details,” he says. “These are the little norms that I think make Peter such an incredible, not only artist but just a thinker reflecting on the Black experience.”

Peter Williams, ROCKETTRY, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 60×72 inches

The central element in Black People’s Oil  is the figure trudging through swamp-like oil in a spacesuit emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the front and the letters ‘B L M’ scrolled on the arm of the suit. A ‘BP Oil’ blimp flies above, likely referencing the 2010 oil spill that deeply affected the Gulf of Mexico and another flying car resembling the Pan African flag reads ‘Black People.’ A goggle lens frames the Black figure in the space suit. The piece is a complex visual suggesting routes of escape, but also questioning if that means something better or the type of desired difference that alleviates one from oppression and despair.

Rockettry doesn’t answer that but serves as a call to action. Here, Williams paints a community of people working together to build their mode of transportation and way out of a corrupt and disastrous planet. Car parts and tools are scattered, men and women work individually and collaboratively on vehicles. There’s a lot of  movement on canvas that offers commentary on the inventiveness that can be birthed within a confined environment. The details are pivotal as Ossei-Mensah references. Notice the brown man slumped over holding cans of fuel cell,  another holding his Cuba identification card, and a  community member wearing a shirt that reads: Roses are red/violets enjoyable/don’t blame the Mexicans cause your unemployable. In the upper right corner, a burnt orange, sun-like shape overlooks the community working to create a way out, but this is not a beam of light. The words: Fascist, Pigs, KKK, FBI, Lies, Bitch, Ice, Trump with multiple HaHas are carved on the figure. The community continues on their mission.

I Fell From the Sky references the history of painting the human form. We see astronauts floating in a “suspended state of consciousness” and uncertainty regarding their future – a testament to the present day in the midst of a global health pandemic,  hyper-visible racial and political tensions. The astronauts hands are  covered with white gloves, referencing the minstrel show and television shows illustrating Black people as cartoon buffoons. The visual statement traces a traumatic past that has seeped into mainstream consciousness in various forms from  — some of which holding such an aesthetic appeal the foundational roots have been obstructed from memory or a desire to know. But Williams doesn’t paint frivolously. History is significant even while the artist deciphers thoughts and colliding worlds.

The figure at the core of the canvas is flying in a space suit designed with stitches of Kente cloth – an homage to Ghana in West Africa. The symbolism here is communication. Gold articulates status and serenity; yellow is fertility; green speaks to renewal; blue aligns with spirit and harmony; red is passion and black represents a union with ancestors and spiritual awareness. These elements arrive in the conscious state, perhaps serving as a guided language for Williams while conceptualizing the series and dialogue that discusses the Black experience.

Peter Williams, I FELL FROM THE SKY, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 72×96 inches

Peter Williams is an educator and artist with the condition of Black lives always at the forefront of his creative transport. In Black Universe, we journey along an experiential thinker and conversationalist en route to another world within and beyond the known. He extends the invitation to use your imagination when digesting the complexity of his works and exploring how to come to terms with the world that presently exists. The solution does not rest in escapism that suggests something new is better, but the power to choose and decide how to make the lives we lead on this planet our version of utopia.

Peter Williams at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art – Detroit) and Trinosophes.

*Writer’s Note: Thank you to Rebecca Mazzei,  Larry Ossei- Mensah  and Zeb Smith for conversation and insight.

KA Letts @ River House Arts

ANTHROPOCENE Paintings and Drawings for the New Normal

KA Letts’ title ‘Anthropocene’ refers to the current geological-time epoch where humans have the greatest impact on the Earth’s environment. The term was first introduced by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000 and has gained popularity in elite scientific circles. Humans are the first species keenly aware of our drastic planet-scale influence causing mass extinctions of plants and animals, pollution of the oceans and alteration of the atmosphere. Letts’ work references this phenomenon through myths and stories from our shared cultural history.

KA Letts, Death of Phaeton, 2019, tinted gesso on paper, 18” x 24”

In Greek mythology, Phaeton is the bastard son of the sun god Helios. In an attempt to prove his paternity, Helios gives Phaeton permission to drive the chariot of the sun through the heavens for a single day. Phaeton is unable to control the horses of the sun chariot, driving them too close to the earth and scorching it. Zeus stops the madness with a thunderbolt, killing Phaeton. Letts draws on indigenous Aboriginal art using one-dimensional geometric shapes accompanied by a Seurat dot-style application that permeates Australian contemporary work. Her style strongly aligns with Native Alaskan artwork that conveys spiritual and physical activity through a similar use of line and shape. The black and white palette allows the viewer to focus on the characters whose physical expression communicates their emotional response to the lifeless soul crumpled at the bottom of the picture.

KA Letts, Encounter, 2019, tinted gesso on paper, 50” x 38”

The scale of Encounter immediately demands attention. Before unpacking the subjects and their message, the image twists and moves, inviting a closer look. Upon discovery of the intertwined figures, their intimacy is disclosed. Because one figure is flat black and the other is rendered in that primitive style, this could as easily be a tryst between lovers or a god tangling with its seeker.

KA Letts, Three Angels and a Harpy, 2019, acrylic on paper, 36” x 48”

In Three Angels and a Harpy, we are permitted colored pointillism that affords some warmth. Upon first glance, these bending and dancing figures immediately remind of Detroit’s Charles McGee’s striking graphic white patterns on black. There is a very subtle checkered line that snakes through this piece, belting the characters together. It’s difficult to separate the subjects, but no matter. This composition is lively and commands the eye to circumnavigate the picture excavating for interpretation.

KA Letts, Burning Earth, 2019, acrylic on dibond, 36” x 48”

Burning Earth’s character on the right seems to have pitched the erupting fireball while the character on the left shouts in horror “Don’t do it!”. Gods at odds and humans pay the price for their whims. What’s great about this piece is it reads like a mosaic. It’s only upon close inspection the viewer can discern the fastidious application of colored dots. These marks create an almost tactile background. The progressive color values grant necessary dimension behind flat subjects.

KA Letts, Martyrdom of St. Jezebel, 2019, tinted gesso on paper, 50” x 38”

Martyrdom of St. Jezebel is a dramatic piece. Jezebel has been released by judgmental hands, plummeting toward the vicious dogs of fate while an onlooker considers the matter. Letts’ training as a set and costume designer reveals in the stitching of the black structures. Jezebel’s tiny hands and feet are the only afforded color describing her delicate circumstances as well as her person. The text, although not particularly necessary, is well camouflaged and is secondary to the horror of the story taking center stage.

KA Letts, Reliquary, 2012, tinted gesso on paper, 38” x 50”

Reliquary resides in the small vestibule ahead of the gallery entrance and can be easily missed, which is tragic because it’s a fabulous piece. Dark and ominous, the skulls call to the European catacombs where overflowing cemeteries had to be relocated in subterranean tombs. Out of respect for the dead, the bones are mindfully organized and stacked in patterns. Several inscriptions, paintings, statues and ornaments can be found in these sacred tunnels, often depicting and exulting Christ. Most religions attach spiritual power to coveted relics. The Catholic Church would have inscribed any religious artifacts in Latin signifying its power. Letts leaves the translation of her mystical text to our imagination.

In a contemporary landscape of interdisciplinary and/or conceptual art shows, straight up painting, when it’s well executed, is a real treat. The skill it requires to invoke an emotional response without controversy, indecipherable imagery or optical tricks is to be admired and celebrated. At a distant glance, Letts’ work appears graphic and precise. Moving in for close examination, the meticulous craftmanship of the brushwork is evident. Artwork has to stand on visual merit, hopefully both compositionally as well as emotionally, or it’s not worth bothering with the written statements. It’s not entirely necessary to read into Letts’ myths and metaphors to enjoy her work. It visually captivates on face alone.

ANTHROPOCENE Paintings and Drawings for the New Normal by KA Letts is on view now through October 3, 2020

River House Arts, 425 Jefferson Ave, Toledo, US

We Used to Gather @ Detroit Library Street Collective

Installation, We Used To Gather, Library Street Collective, 8.2020

The walls of Detroit’s Library Street Collective are lined floor to ceiling with vibrant canvases that match the bright, sunny days of this hot Detroit summer. The gallery’s first opening since the widespread closures following the COVID-19 pandemic, We Used to Gather ambitiously responds to communal anxieties with a series of figurative works by 26 different artists. As we begin to tiptoe wearily out of social isolation, many of us are reflecting on what we learned both about ourselves and our relationships with our communities over the past few months. The show reminds us that reflections of ourselves are everywhere we look and often, we struggle to make sense of what we see. The title itself recalls a time when we were able to gather freely, only here, the presence of others is supplanted by two-dimensional representations.

Tylonn J. Sawyer, American Gangsta: Uncle Sam, 2018 Oil on canvas 48 x 60 in. (121.92 x 152.4 cm)

At the very entrance of the gallery, the eye is immediately drawn to Tylonn J. Sawyer’s American Gangsta: Uncle Sam, 2018. Sawyer’s fine technical skill and command of his medium shine through in this life-sized depiction of a Black man sporting a clean suit and touting a cigarette in front of the American flag. With a gun tucked in his belt line, he peers critically out of the canvas. His dubious expression begs the question: who exists to protect and serve America? And likewise, who does America exist to protect and serve?

Conrad Egyir, Sydney King, 2020 Oil with mixed media on panel 48 x 48 in. (121.92 x 121.92 cm)

Conrad Egyir, JustTina, 2020 Oil with mixed media on pane, 48 x 48 in. (121.92 x 121.92 cm)

Conrad Egyir touches on similar themes in the two works he has featured in the show. In Sydney King and JustTina, his subjects are framed by another hallmark of national institutionalism: the postage stamp. Both women gaze outwards with their right hands laid gently over their hearts. Ghanan-born Egyir is interested in how African identity is perceived as it travels across the diaspora. The postage stamp is quite literally a vehicle for the transportation of words and ideas. It also serves as a sort of tribute to those prominent figures who we, as a society, have chosen to honor. In these two works, Egyir chooses to honor Black women, whose lived experiences and contributions are far too often overlooked in daily life.

Maja Djordjevic, Be here and be loud, 2020 Oil and enamel on canvas 48 x 36 in. (121.92 x 91.44 cm)

Maja Djordjevic, Waiting and hoping, 2020 Oil and enamel on canvas 48 x 36 in. (121.92 x 91.44 cm)

A little further down the salon-style lineup of paintings hangs a work by Serbian artist Maja Djordjevic. The artist has two pieces featured in the show, both of which depict a pixelated nude female figure in dramatic posture. With her stiff limbs and mouth fixed open, she bears semblance to an inflatable sex doll. Though painted entirely by hand without tape or stencils, the digitized style of Djordjevic’s work alludes to the virtual realities many of us live via the internet, especially over these past few months when contact with the outside world has been so limited. To whom do we turn for comfort during these trying times? More often than not, it’s the women in our lives, be they real or digitally imagined, who play the role of caregiver.

Gisela McDaniel, Do Right, 2020 Oil on canvas, found object, resin, flower, sound on USB, 40 x 20 in. (101.6 x 50.8 cm)

An ode to the feminine is also made in Gisela McDaniel’s Do Right. McDaniel creates visual realms where victims of sexual abuse can seek refuge from their trauma. In Do Right, a woman envelops herself gracefully in her own criss-crossed arms. Intertwined with her are two small white dogs. Bright colors, vibrant foliage, and three-dimensional trinkets fixed to the surface of the canvas all serve to delineate a personal fortress where this woman reigns free. Stories, especially as they are told and personally reclaimed by women, are at the heart of McDaniel’s work.

Jammie Holmes, Untitled, 2020 Acrylic on canvas 60 x 44 in. (152.4 x 111.76 cm)

The show also features two works by Louisiana-native Jammie Holmes. His untitled work depicts a young man sitting, facing squarely forward, on a wicker Peacock Chair. The ornate chair was popularized in the twentieth century by countless celebrities and public figures who often posed sitting in the chair for portraits, album covers, and publicity stunts. One famous Peacock Chair portrait is that of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Here, the subject is poised in a commanding position of authority, not unlike that of Newton’s in his respective portrait. It is not difficult to imagine that Holmes might have intended to invoke the radical notions of the Black Panther Party during a time in the United States when police brutality against Black people is at the forefront of national attention.

Photography attributed to Blair Stapp, Composition by Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967. Lithograph on paper; Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Marcus Brutus, Annie, 2020 Acrylic on canvas 30 x 24 in. (76.2 x 60.96 cm)

Along the same lines, Marcus Brutus has four intimate portraits featured in the show. Each of them center in on a Black male figure set against bright yet minimal backgrounds. Annie is calm and stoic in its presentation of a young man gazing tiredly out of the canvas. His downtrodden expression and timeless dress are enlivened by the brilliant lime-green backdrop just behind him. Traces of bright green glint off of his skin. Brutus celebrates the ordinary with his reverent portraits of familiar faces.

Pedro Pedro, Figure Fumbling for a Cigarette, 2019 Acrylic and textile paint on linen 49 x 34 in. (124.46 x 86.36 cm)

Pedro Pedro, Portrait of Kaitlin Concerned, 2019 Acrylic and textile paint on linen 19 x 16 in. (48.26 x 40.64 cm)

In fitting contrast, LA-based Pedro Pedro offers two portraits of female figures. The features of each woman are exaggerated to the point of comedic effect, yet each composition feels wholly balanced. The warm hues and richly blended colors pay service to the expressions of the women, each of which appear to be frozen in a moment of contemplation. The variation of style and concept in We Used to Gather might at first overwhelm, but ultimately succeeds in capturing the feelings of chaos and uncertainty most of us are experiencing in these trying times.

All works mentioned above as well as many others are available to view at Library Street Collective through September 18, 2020. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 12-6PM. A virtual tour of the exhibition is also available on the Library Street Collective website. 10% of the proceeds on any works sold from We Used to Gather will be donated to the Metro Detroit COVID-19 ACE Fund.

WE USED TO GATHER

Library Street Collective, July 18 – September 18, 2020  –   1260 Library Street, Detroit, MI  48226

Elise Ansel & Al Held @ David Klein Galleries

Installation image, courtesy of the David Klein Gallery, photo by Samantha Schefman

Both exhibitions delayed their openings this spring because of the Covid 19 pandemic, but now, each are on display separately at the two galleries. The new exhibition of oil paintings at David Klein downtown, Palimpsest, is a collection of eleven works of art by Elise Ansel.

You ask yourself where do artists get their ideas for a painting?  Is it from observation, photographs, events, setting up objects, imagination or from the depths of the collective unconscious?  The answer is usually all or a mix of the above. Artists bring their own experience to the creation.

Elise Ansel finds motivation in historical works of art from which she reconstructs a realistic representational work of art using abstract expressionism as her vehicle. The work in this exhibition bases its reconstructions on Old Master paintings from the Detroit Institute of Arts collection.

She says in her statement, “I create by translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language. I mine art historical imagery for color, structure, and meaning. Thus, my paintings use the Old Masters as points of departure. They move into Abstraction by transforming the representational content, which is obfuscated and ultimately eclipsed by my focus on color, gesture, and the materiality of paint. I interrupt linear, rational readings so that the real subject becomes the substance and surface of oil paint, the range of its applications, and the ways in which it can be used to celebrate life. My work deconstructs both pictorial language and authorial agency to excavate and liberate meanings buried beneath the surface of the works from which my paintings spring.”

Elise Ansel, Hybrid 1, Oil on canvas, 48 x 36, all images courtesy of the David Klein Gallery

 

Rachel Ruysch, Flowers in a Glass Vase, Oil on canvas, 33 X 26, 1704, Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

The work Hybrid 1 draws on the Ruysch still life and attracts the viewer in a multitude of ways. Set against a black background, the textured strokes, color palette,  Miro-like delicacy and  expressive linework renders a kind of feminine harmony. Hybrid 1 plays off Rachel Ruysch’s Flowers in a Glass Vase, 1704,  and leaves the experience wide open to interpretation.  The most profound concept here is that we all bring our own personal experience to a work of art. So when I view the Ruysch still life, where do I go?  Handsomely composed and decorated, like the photograph of an apple, it leaves little room for interpretation.

Studio, Elise Ansel

Elise Ansel, Judith lll, Oil on Canvas, 72 x 56″,

The same concept applies to the reconstruction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith 1. Ansel goes to great lengths in the interpretation by writer Mary Garrard with references to her book, Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Post Modernism, in which she writes, “The cultural habit of seeing woman as an object-to-be-looked-at, the site of scopophilic pleasure” is denied and replaced with a focus on the artist hand.  What exactly is being killed in Gentileschi’s painting: toxic scopophilia and the myth of white supremacy.” Forgive me, but there aren’t too many psychiatrists who use Sigmund Freud in their practice these days.

Ansel’s paintings are vibrant and compelling in their execution.  Using an extra-large brush stroke of vibrant colored oil paint against these mostly dark backgrounds without reference to Caravaggio or Rembrandt would work just fine.  Some paintings retain images from Old Master works she has dissected, while others are pure abstractions whose relationship to any source is invisible. The visit to the museum feels more like contrivance and is not needed for this viewer as the paintings stand on their own and express their own individual form of abstract expressionism.

Elise Ansel, a native of New York City, is a graduate of Brown University and earned an MFA from Southern Methodist University. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad and is in multiple private and public collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow, Poland, Brown University, Providence, RI, and Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME. Elise Ansel lives and works in Portland, Maine.

 

Al Held @ David Klein – Birmingham

Al Held, Installation, All images courtesy of David Klein Gallery

For this exhibition, David Klein draws on the Al Held Foundation for a modest show of Al Held watercolors from the early 1990s, which were painted mostly near Rome, Italy, at his studio on Janiculum Hill sometime after his residency at the American Academy (1981-82) where he spent time creating his watercolors and studying what some would call the Renaissance vision.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, Al Held grew up in the East Bronx, the son of a poor Polish family thrown into the stresses of welfare during the depression. He showed little interest in art until leaving the Navy in 1947, where he enrolled in the Art Students League of New York. In 1951, with support from the G.I. Bill, Held traveled to Paris for two years to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In Paris, he decided that realism was not for him and moved into Abstraction and worked alongside the early 50s abstract expressionists. The single major retrospective of his career remains the survey curated by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1974, which traced his development from his heavily pigmented, gestural Expressionist paintings in the 1950s, to his pioneering of flatly rendered geometric Abstraction in the context of post-painterly Abstraction in the 1960s, to his veering off on his own path in his reintroduction of illusionism into abstract painting in the early 1970s.

Installation image

Al Held, Tesoro 14, Watercolor on Paper mounted on board, 31 x 40″, 1993

The watercolors are dominated with geometric shapes, often either suspended in space or moving backward in perspective.  The use of primary color played against secondary color creates a convergence of color and shape.  Some of these paintings have horizontal windows, reminding me at times of Diego Rivera without the use of the figure.  These futuristic landscapes defined by complexly organized architectural scaffolds are not grounded nor do they pay attention to an outside light source; instead, they darken the interior of a cube or box. Inspired by Renaissance conceptions of the universe, one could see classical compositions that are topless or bottomless, juxtaposed to Mondrian, firmly planted on earth. These works on paper are stretched on stretcher frames and float in their picture frames, much like an oil painting.

Al Held (1928-2005) was one of the last and best of the big-impact abstract painters to emerge from the postwar era.  My personal favorite in this exhibition is Tesoro 14  that moves horizontally, right to the left, in a circular motion like a giant cog in a wooden windlass that harnesses and transfers energy.  The use of color complements is dominated by primaries and a centered composition that generates its densely packed strength.

In 1962, Held was appointed Associate Professor of Art at Yale University in 1962. He was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966. He has also been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few. His work is in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

At David Klein Galleries, both exhibitions are on display through August 22, 2020.

Queen @ Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Queen: From The Collection of CCH Pounder on exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Queen exhibition at Charles Wright Museum install image courtesy of LaToya Cross

“This looks like a movie set,” exclaimed a youthful voice. The brown boy was on a school trip to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and expressed his awe and excitement as he and classmates swirled through the ‘Queen’ exhibit.

A movie set? I could see that. When you enter the AT&T Gallery at the Wright, there is a richness  in the collection and a feeling that you’re in the presence of stars.

On loan to the museum by award-winning actress and avid art collector CCH Pounder ( NCIS: New Orleans), the pieces are from her private collection and during my visit, (prior to Gov. Whitaker’s ‘Stay at Home’ executive order due to the vast spread of COVID-19), the Wright had recently received a new visual bringing the exhibition to a total of 53 artworks that explore Black women across four themes: beauty, agency, strength and dignity. The makers of the paintings, mixed-media installations and sculptures are artists from across the African Diaspora.

Curated by Sarah Anita Clunis, Ph.D., from Xavier University of Louisiana,  “Beauty” opens the gallery space and immediately I am fascinated with Willow Moon  by the late Jamaican painter and mixed-media artist, Tamara Natalie Madden. The woman’s brown skin brushed with rich golden hues and highlights of oranges and reds is illuminating. The definition of the collar bone teases the subject’s soft sensuousness.

Tamara Natalie Madden (Jamaican), Willow Moon, “30 x 20”  Oil on canvas, 2009

In Madden’s work, allegories are significant. There’s a mirrored likeness between the woman and the bird perched on her fingers, from the color palette to the focused gaze in their curled eyes. The bird cameo (a staple in Madden’s paintings) represents struggle, survival and freedom – an offering of the makers’ personal story and battle with a rare form of cancer that led to her passing in 2017. The body is adorned by a quilt with intricately designed fabrics. This attention given to the detailed threads is a compliment to Madden’s Jamaican roots where quilting is a form of familial storytelling and clothing complements one’s essential beauty. An aura is projected evoking a message of divine femininity.

Steve Prince’s Angela, Messenger of God follows this artistic motif in relation to spirit and divinity. The hoop earrings and afro puffs make Angela’s spiritual prowess relatable to the everyday girl. Her posture is bold yet relaxed and absent of worry while owning space and possibly controlling the elements surrounding her. The grayscale drawing is symbolically complex but there’s evidence of floating hearts, stretched out hands, and feminine-structured silhouettes. The motion and rhythm in Prince’s line strokes appear as guided spirits dancing amid the stillness of “the messenger.”

Steve Prince Angela, Messenger of God, 48 x 84”, Conte’,  201

A loving and nurturing essence exudes in Earth Mother, a charcoal rendering by Yrneh Gabon Brown. Originally part of Brown’s installation, Memba Mi Tell Yu (Listen Up, Take Note) that addresses climate change and the effect it has on the California ecosystem, respect and care for the environment is represented in this work. She is a source of life, spirituality and healing. She is soft but not fragile and always a warrior.

Yrneh Gabon Brown, Earth Mother, 78 x 53”  Charcoal, 2017

Kine Aw (Senegalese), Coiffeur, 78 x 52” Acrylic, oil and tar, *year not provided*

Memories of going to the hair salon  prompted my liking of Coiffeur;  the coming-of-age essence of getting your hair done in momma’s kitchen and as we got older, your homegirl’s house and eventually graduating to the physical salon or “shop”. The flowy, cool colors and swaying nature of body posture in Kine Aw’s painting feels like a breezy Saturday afternoon among sisters, not necessarily by blood but cultural kinship.

Fritz Koenig (German), Bust of an African Woman, 31 x 20” Bronze, mother of pearl, and marble, 1969

When considering agency, and occupancy of space, women of color have often felt unwelcomed and isolated. The idea that women, Black women specifically, are not enough is an obsolete ideology that is debunked throughout the exhibition. The  slight smile and lifted chin, regal stones, sophisticated clothing and oozing confidence in Bust of an African Woman speaks to ancestry and legacy. With imagination at play, this is my grandmother dressed to mingle and socialize with her peers. The story has a simple theme: dignity.

If I were to create a soundtrack to this exhibition, I’d blend album cuts from Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Jamila Woods’ Legacy! Legacy!  and Rapsody’s Eve, making a bold musical gumbo that feeds the soul with honesty, vulnerability and revelation about the depths of womanhood and the Black experience. The artwork for its release would be Harmonia Rosales’ The Birth of Oshun. The intricately detailed  painting is rooted in traditional Nigerian storytelling and shifts the narrative of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, an early renaissance rendering that depicts a white Venus with white Angels flying among her.

Rosales, a contextually clever artist, centers Oshun, painted nude with gold patches representative of the goddesses’ vitiligo, in a seashell surrounded by water and Black angels. The visual is aesthetically appealing and reels you in to the arrival of a deity–pure, sacred and powerful.

Harmonia Rosales (Afro-Cuban American), 55 x 67”, The Birth of Oshun Oil on linen, 2017

‘Queen’ is a visceral experience. The collection encourages the viewer to connect with history, appreciate the present, and admire beauty. We’re taken around the globe with an open invitation to experience a cohesive and complex story that celebrates femininity, identity, power and makings of the Black woman. Perhaps, revealing to the young brown boy visiting with his class that melanated women are indeed, movie star status.

Writer’s Note: Special thank you to Arielle Wallace, Coordinator, External Affairs and Jennifer Evans, Assistant Curator at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for their assistance in providing images and artist credits for this review.

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Whitmer’s extended ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order,  the Charles H. Wright Museum is closed until further notice.