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Art, Glorious Art

The walls in the main galleries at NOMA are alive with a glorious exhibition entitled: “Beyond the Blues–Reflections of African America in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center”. Visitors are sure to be stunned by the range, depth of feeling, and sheer number of works by African American artists on display. This exhibition is a collaborative effort of the Amistad Research Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Space has always been a problem for the Amistad Research Center for its archival collections, its library, staff areas, and most of all for its art collection. Small exhibitions of the Amistad fine arts holdings have been displayed over the years at the Center when it was at Fisk, then at Dillard, at the Mint, and finally in its present home on Tulane’s campus. Scholars were escorted into the storage areas to see what the collection contained. Some works were periodically loaned out for exhibition. But like a large beautiful bird, uncaged and free, we finally get to see this collection adorn the walls at NOMA. Room after room of images cover centuries of work by African American artists.

The Amistad Research Center has been good about making some of its holdings available to the public in prints. Amistad has reproduced works, including some by Jacob Lawrence and Ellis Wilson, for purchase. But to be able to view Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Overture series as a whole as it is meant to be seen is truly worth the whole show. And while the New Orleans Museum of Art does have on permanent display a wonderful mother and child wood sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, to be able to see a number of Catlett works in one place is hypnotic. And the great lady herself was able to view the exhibition while in town recently, for the ceremony to unveil her new sculpture honoring Mahalia Jackson in Armstrong Park.

Some of the artists in this exhibition, such as Hale Woodruff, Lois Mailou Jones and James Porter, had long careers as professors and writers, as well as producing a lifetime of art. Others did ordinary jobs to support their lives as artists. David Driscoll, besides creating art and teaching in higher education his whole life, has contributed much to publicizing and mounting major exhibitions by African American artists. This exhibition also provides an opportunity to see artists from earlier times such as William Artis, Edward Bannister, Richmond Barthe, Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, John Biggers, Margaret Burroughs, Claude Clark, Allen Crite, Charles Cullen, Aaron Douglas, Betty Holbrook, Malvin Gray Johnson, Sargent Johnson, William H. Johnson, Gwendolyn Knight, Leon Noel, William E. Scott, Henry O. Tanner, and a host of others.

There are a number works by artists from this area in the exhibition including: John T. Scott, Ron Bechet, Jeffry Cook, Kimberly Dummons, Claire Foster Burnett, Clementine Hunter, Charlie T. Johnson, Jr., Louise Mouton Johnson, Jack Jordan, Jules Lion, William Pajaud, Martin Payton, Steve A. Prince, and Sue Jane Smock.

This is an exhibition that appeals to children as well as adults. One hopes that long lines of school buses from summer camps and school summer programs will pull up in front of N.O.M.A. to ensure that the children of our city get to see these images before the exhibition closes on July 11 and that the children can come back to walk through these life-affirming images with their extended families who can use the paintings and sculptures to recall to their children the history and important historical figures represented here, as well as important acts by ordinary people documented in these wonderful artists works.

Only one thousand copies of the catalog for the exhibition, also entitled Beyond the Blues—Reflections of African American in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center, have been produced. The catalog was made possible with support from the Ford Foundation. It was designed by Aisha Champagne and edited by Caroline Goyette, of the New Orleans Museum of Art. The artwork for the catalog was photographed by Judy Cooper. It was produced by the publications office at N.O.M.A.

I would highly recommend the catalog as an important companion to the experience of viewing the works in person at N.O.M.A. Besides reproducing so many of the works in the current exhibition throughout the catalog in full color, it contains scholarly articles by Lowery Stokes Simms, Michael D. Harris, and Renee Ater, an introduction by the curator Margaret Rose Vendryes, a foreword by artist and scholar David Driskell, and acknowledgments by Amistad Director Lee Hamilton. Included in the catalog for the exhibition is a bibliography which suggests further readings. While the catalog is a valuable reference for the Amistad Research Center’s collection, nothing can replace the thrill of seeing the works of so many important African American artists in such large and beautiful spaces. On Wednesdays, the New Orleans Museum of Art is free to Louisiana residents. Wednesday hours are 1:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Hours on Thursday through Sunday are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Other venues regularly showing works by African American artists here in New Orleans include the McKenna Museum of African American Art, the New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture and History in Treme, and the Stella Jones Gallery which is now showing the Masters Project of Beryl Johns and Michael Harris in the Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans, “The Talented Tenth—Artists and Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, WPA, and Beyond.” There is some overlap with the artists in the “Beyond the Blues” exhibition at N.O.M.A. And some artists are included who are not in the Collection of the Amistad Research Center.

Dr. Sara Hollis
Director, M.A. Museum Studies
Program at SUNO



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