Art in Black and White
BY WIM ROEFS
There are distinct advantages to not feeling threatened by multiculturalism and otherwise being a failure at amassing the anger that is supposed to rage through the bodies of white boys like myself these days.
Perhaps the most pleasant one is that you get to indulge in the beauty "other folks" produce without feeling the need to took over your shoulder, afraid that same-skinned neighbors might catch you in the act.
You don't feel that there is a zero sum game involved - that liking "their" stuff amounts to shortchanging "your own kind." You're not obsessed with the language of handouts and, therefore, aren't inclined to think that "them" wanting to show "their" stuff is yet another demand for one.
And finding out that "their" best easily compares with the best of "your kind" doesn't make you feel inadequate. It doesn't even result in quiet anxiety about corning out of the multicultural closet because you-"silly you," I should say- never know you were expected to be in it in the first place.
So there 1 was a few years ago, in Nashville with a good day or so to kill. What's a boy to do? What would he like to see? Well, Fisk University, of course! Why pass up an opportunity to breathe the air at one of the oldest black universities in the land! Alma mater of W.B.B. Du Bois and John Hope Franklin?
The university was not in as good a shape as one would like a place of such historical proportions to be. But the art! I am not just talking about Picasso, Cezanne and other fellow Europeans I was surprised to stumble onto at Fisk.
There were magnificent paintings by people called William H. Johnson and Aaron Douglouglas - black Americans, as it turned out, of whom I had never heard.
Fisk thus became the starting point of part of my education, too - in African-American art. White North Carolinian Robert Gwathmey socially engaged and brilliant painter of striking Southern countrey scenes featuring blacks felt the South's colorful vegetation and soil and its contrasts between black white and past and present made the region perfect for creatring visual art. I found it to be perfect for discovering African-American visual art.
Of course, Gwathmey's convictions earned him FBI surveillance in post-WorId War II period, but 1 have so far been left alone, even by the anti-multicultural thought police.
My education took me places although not nearly enough. There were traveling exhibitions of black art that stopped at mainstream venues in the South no doubt a measure of increased respect blacks and art are getting in the region.
William H. Johnson's "Homecoming" show, now on display in Columbia, is possibly the biggest revelation I've had in a decade or so, art-wise. I saw it in Greenville. Twice. Romare Bearden as "Printmaker," another huge revelation, conveniently came to Columbia, where I live. For Jacob Lawrence's "The Migration Series" yes, a revelation I happily drove six hours to Birmingham, Ala.
Meanwhile there was a stunning overview of Torn Feelings' work at Benedict College in Columbia. Tarelton Blackwell's show at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., showed he was getting very good. And a stroll through Royal Street in New Orleans' French Quarter suddenly had a purpose when William Tolliver's work in the window of Gallery Royale caught my eye.
The Tampa Museum of African-American Art was splendid. Judging by the catalogue of Hampton University's museum in Virginia, their collection might even be better.
I am just dying to see Clark-Atlanta University's highly praised collection, and I hear good things about Washington's Howard University and Mississippi's Tougaloo College. In fact, many black colleges own outstanding African-American art. Its popularity has dramatically increased in the past decades and its price, too, but for many years nobody but the colleges wanted to have it. Sweet justice indeed.
There are clearly easier ways to instill pride in African-Americans than desperately trying to prove descendency from African royalty or claiming that this old boy from Greece, Pythagoras, wasn't the best of the planet's mathematicians after all. Just go to an African American work of art near you.
I, meanwhile, will keep it truly multicultural. In Nashville I also went into country star Randy Travis' merchandise store, although I didn't see anything I couldn't live without.
Wim Roefs is a freelance writer who lives end works in Columbia.
Finding out that "their" best easily compares with the best of "your kind" doesn't make you feel inadequate. It doesn't even result in quiet anxiety about coming out of the multicultural closet because you - silly you - never knew you were expected to be in it in the first place.