Sunday, February 20, 2011

Black Creativity: Arts Alliance's Homage to Black History Month

When I read in Florida Weekly that the Arts Alliance in Fort Myers was hosting an exhibit in honor of Black History Month, I decided to check it out.   At the entrance to the exhibit, I read that Black History Month celebrates the "African diaspora."  I will admit to having to look up the meaning of the word "diaspora," which Wikipedia defines as the "mass migration away from an ancestral homeland, resulting in ex-patriate communities."    Knowing the meaning of this word does in fact set the context for the exhibit, which showed a variety of perspectives on the lives of African-Americans. 

Ringgold Hate is a Sin
Ringgold Aunt Emmy
 When I went to the Women Call for Peace exhibit last fall at the Center for the Arts in Bonita Springs, I was introduced to the art of Faith Ringgold, and it was Ringgold's presence in this exhibit that brought me to the Arts Alliance.  Ringgold's art is both political and beautiful.   Ringgold is best known for her story quilts but the paintings included in this exhibit also tell stories, using language to literally frame the picture.  Her Hate Is a Sin made me extremely uncomfortable with its use of the infamous "N" word, as she tells the viewers that she was called this word for the first time when she was at a rally at the Whitney Museum of Art in NY protesting the failure to display the works of black artists.   I particularly liked her Aunt Emmy,  whose "frame" says "One day Barn Door was in the fields choppin cotton when he heard Aunt Emmy's voice from deep in the earth.  'Barn Door the time has come to walk to freedom.  Wait till night then go and don't leave nobody behind.  Keep a comin to Jones Road.  Look for an old white farm house with a star quilt on the roof.  We be waiting for you.  God be on your side.  You as good as free.'  "   For some interesting background on this work, go to

Frazier's The Sit In
Frank Frazier is another artist whose work was included in this exhibit.   Like Ringgold, Frazier uses his art to make a political statement.  It is striking in its simplicity and in the fact that he uses shoe polish as part of his medium.  Perhaps this is a reference to white actors doing "black face"? 

Dorsey The Family Home
Close up from The Family Home

The other artists' works in the exhibit related to non-political aspects of the lives of African-Americans.  I loved the mixed media work of Najee Dorsey, who was also the curator of the exhibit.  His large painting The Family Home is rich in its textures and references to the past.  If you look carefully, you see that he uses actual black and white photographs in the picture frames. I would love to know the history of the people in the photos and how they fit into the work.  I also loved the African mask sitting on a pedestal in the room, both as a cultural reference and because I just love African masks.  (We have our own small collection which I started with the purchase of two hand painted wooden daggers on our honeymoon--but I digress!)   And of course the prominent place of the piano in the work reminds us of the centrality of music in many families' lives.    When reading Dorsey's bio, I learned that he started selling paintings to his mother when he was five years old to buy candy at the local store.  I just love that little tidbit.  What a great parent to instill in her child a sense that what he is doing has value while also teaching him the importance of working for what you want.  

Ellis' Time for Worship
Ted Ellis' Sunday Services and Time for Worship remind viewers of the importance of church in the lives of many African-Americans.  I particularly liked the sense of the church as a gathering place--the creation of a community--in Time for Worship.

I spoke with a woman who was working at the Arts Alliance to find out a bit about the genesis of the exhibit.   The works were all for sale but they did not appear to be created by artists who live in the area.  This led me to wonder if the exhibit was travelling, like Women Call for Peace was. Apparently, somebody in the Fort Myers arts community is friends with Dorsey, who put the exhibit together just for the Arts Alliance.   Pretty amazing given the size of the community, even during "high" season.   The quality of the arts in Southwest Florida continues to be a wonderful surprise to me, and is one of the many reasons I'm so happy with our move here.

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