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5 Star Stories: Cultural contributions at Memphis art galleries

Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 10:04 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As we continue our tribute to Black History Month, we’re delving into art, in particular, African American artwork in two of this city’s largest galleries, many of whom had to maneuver around closed doors in their own country.

Now, more doors are opening for today’s Black American artists.

The Dixon Gallery & Gardens off Park Avenue in East Memphis was once the private residence of Hugo and Margaret Dixon, who donated the entire 17 acres and their collection of French impressionism and post-impressionism art to Julie Pierotti, the Dixon’s Martha R. Robinson curator.

“As we’re talking about French art, you know in the period, really 1850 to about World War II, Paris is the center of the art world, and a lot of American artists, including Black American artists, went to Paris if they could,” she explained.

There are two still life paintings in the Dixon residence, Bowl of Cherries and Sunflowers, by African American artist Charles Ethan Porter, who she said, “was really the first Black American artist to go to Paris that studied art and really to become a painter.”

Pierotti said Porter went to Paris armed with a letter of recommendation by writer Mark Twain, and by 1882, had immersed himself into the Parisian art world, becoming the only Black artist in history to specialize in still life. But upon his return to the United States, the genre was out of vogue, leaving him to die in relative obscurity with only about nine of his 54 documented works in museums.

Despite Porter’s relative obscurity at the end of his career, he still inspired other Black American artists to try Paris, like Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 and remained there throughout a very successful career. His work was recognized internationally, and being the son of a minister, was mostly religious in nature. One such painting, “View of the Siene,” also hangs in the Dixon Gallery.

According to Pierotti, Tanner was, “really the first Black American painter to achieve success in Paris.” His work was shown in The Salon, which is what Pierotti called the place to show your work back then.

William Edouard Scott, a muralist portraitist and illustrator, followed Tanner to Paris in 1909, becoming Tanner’s mentee while also training at Paris art schools.

“And then he goes back to the United States and applies this French technique of painting, you know, a small canvass painted on location, painted really quickly to capture the light and the landscape in this one moment,” described Pierotti while showing off the Dixon’s Scott painting of a vineyard.

Harlem Renaissance sculptor and educator, Augusta Savage, also studied for a time in Paris, but not before a scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris was rescinded in 1923 once the admissions committee realized she was a Black woman. But by 1929, her sculpture entitled, “Gamin,” which is also the first piece added to the Dixon’s collection, won her a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to travel and study in France.

“The Julius Rosenwald Fund was a really powerful source of funding for Black American painters to get out there and explore the United States or explore Europe,” Pierotti said.

Painter and master printmaker Eldzier Cortor’s Rosenwald Fellowship allowed him to study the Gullah community in Georgia and South Carolina during the 1940s. Cortor favored Black female nudes, like the one on loan to the Dixon, and stated that “the black woman represents the black race.”

Pierotti said he was studying surrealism.

“A lot of American and European painters are doing that after the destruction of the second World War,” she added.

Charles White was another Rosenwald Fellow. He described his own work as “images of dignity,” like “Our Land,” which was painted in 1951 and also hangs in the Dixon. Pierotti described the painting of a Black woman holding a pitchfork as White’s version of “American Gothic.”

“That was a big part of the early Civil Rights Movement of Black artists’ kind of contribution to that was promoting positivity in portraying the Black community,” Pierottis said.

At the Brooks Museum of Art in midtown Memphis’ Overton Park, the largest world art museum in three states, “The Art of the African Diaspora” includes both abstract and figurative art that according to Heather Nickels, the Joyce P. Blackmon Curatorial Fellow in African American Art, tries to “connect sort of contemporary African American art to so much of sort of roots on the African continent.”

The Joyce P. Blackmon Curatorial Fellowship was created at the Brooks in 2018.

“It was seen as sort of a priority to make sure that the museum had a fellowship that would support an emerging curator of color. And so hopefully with positions like this, and the priorities set apart by the museum to kind of focus and highlight the aspects and achievements of Black artists,” Nickels explained.

There’s the “Essense of Memphis” mural by Nigerian American artist ViKtor Ekpuk that includes a representation of the Mississippi River, guitars, music notes, and cotton boles, as well as the phrase “I Am A Man,” which was the slogan for the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike. A stunning piece by Pittsburg-based Vanessa German, who addresses hate and expresses hope with her, is one of the featured pieces in the “Diaspora” exhibition on the museum’s top floor.

“This is made up of many, many different components and glitter, but also found materials,” described Nickels while Memphian Luther Hampton’s wood sculptures give a modern twist to early 20th century African art.

One of the other more monumental pieces in the show is “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” which is a series of photographs by Carie May Weems,” according to Nickels.

Weems combined old daguerreotypes of enslaved people from the American south with text to describe how slavers might have labeled them.

Black American artwork is also displayed in the Brook’s Contemporary Gallery, including a massive painting by Tupelo, Mississippi born Sam Gilliam, who was associated with a group of Washington, D.C. area artists called the Washington Color School that developed a form of abstract art from color field painting in the 1950s and 1960s.

Also on display are two pieces by Nashville-born folk sculptor William Edminson, who used found limestone to make his masterpieces.

“He was the first Black artist to have a solo show at MoMA,” Nickels added.

There’s also a piece by Purvis Young, a self-taught artist who was born in Miami, Florida who also often used found objects as well as collage and painting and the experience of African Americans in the south.

There’s an amazing sculpture made completely from tires, which was created by internationally renowned American sculptor Chakaia Booker, known for her monumental and abstract creations from recycled tires and stainless steel.

Nickels contends that most of the African American artists in the Dixon collections have a common thread, besides their race.

“I think the through-line with a lot of Black artists is a lot of it has to do with finding things in our lives that already exist, whether that’s wood, limestone, tires,” she explained.

For centuries, African American artists, despite their struggles with social and civil rights, have been able to influence the visual culture of the United States and Europe. But as Nickels described, “For the most part, historically and continuously really haven’t been recognized. Museums have a lot of work to do to make sure that our collections represent America.”

But there’s little doubt that their creativity, activism, and talent has and will continue to rise above adversity. Most of the paintings described in this story from the Dixon Gardens and Gallery are in the museum’s permanent collection, but two of them are on loan and will only be on display for a short period of time.

As for the Brooks, “The Art of the African Diaspora” has been up since November and the museum tends to rotate exhibitions every four to six months.

For more information about the Brooks Museum, click here. The link for the Dixon is here.

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