Customs House Museum | May 8—August 1
WORDS Jerry C. Waters
The exhibition Works on Paper from the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art opens May 8 at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, Tennessee, the final location of a traveling show that has been viewed by art patrons in cultural institutions in Florida, Nebraska, Texas, and Pennsylvania since 2007. The show contains seventy works on paper, dating from the late 1800s to 2002, and includes drawings, etchings, lithographs, and serigraphs. Important masterworks within the show were produced by nationally recognized African American artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Alma Thomas, and Charles White.
While viewing the exhibition the viewer should understand that the 1960s–70s was an era in which an appreciation of the artistic, literary, and musical expressions by Americans of African descent eventually resulted in the collecting of African American art by individuals and art museums. Indeed, since the 1980s, there has been an increase in the collecting of African American visual art for several reasons. First, the impact of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s on American society; second, the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s; and third, the emergence of multiculturalism as a notion that promotes an understanding of the cultural, societal, and political worth of people across racial, geographic, and social boundaries.
According to Shirley Woodson Reid, a Detroit-based African American artist and president of the National Conference of Artists of Michigan, interest in the importance of African American art over the past forty years has been reinforced by “the rise of numerous African American galleries and museums, national traveling exhibitions, national organizations of artists, and the emergence of prominent collectors.”
Harriet and Harmon Kelley are among a group of prominent African American art collectors in America. Based in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Harmon Kelley is an obstetrician-gynecologist, and his wife, Harriet, is a biologist who began purchasing art by African American artists after viewing Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800– 1950, an exhibition that illustrated the accomplishments of black artists, shown at the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1986.
Several prints in Works on Paper from the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection were produced in the 1930s and 1940s, the era of the Great Depression. Indeed, many are thematically linked to the Social Realism movement that emerged in nineteenth-century European and American art through artists who focused on everyday life experiences of the working class and the poor, often in a representational style. For example, Hilda Wilkerson Brown’s lithograph from around 1940, The Family, is illustrative of the significance of the nuclear family despite the harsh economic realities of the era.
In contrast, Shorty George, also created during the Depression period by Harlem-based artist Norman Lewis, portrays a well-dressed dandy leaning against a brick wall. In terms of artistic technique, Lewis successfully integrated a range of black and grey tonalities rendered on limestone through the printing process of lithography.
A concern for the elevation of the human figure and the idea of labor as a communal endeavor is the thematic goal of the brightly colored world Jacob Lawrence created for his print from 1977, Carpenters. Lawrence is an iconic figure in twentieth-century American art history whose legacy was built on the documentation of black history through painting.
In fact, the Carpenters print is a unique visual experience in that Lawrence advances the Social Realism movement into a modernist arena—stylistically—through his use of decorative flat, colored shapes and spatial recession.
The printing process of etching, which involves using acid to cut lines into a metal plate, is a method Henry Ossawa Tanner employed for Gate of Tangier and Street Scene–Tangier, which depict an Islamic mosque the artist viewed during a visit to Morocco and show his sensitivity to line and his desire to illustrate faraway places. Tanner gained international fame through Biblical paintings he created while in Paris, France, where he lived from 1891 until his death in 1937. Tanner was one of the first African American artists to study at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts prior to his migration to Europe.
A visual highlight of the exhibition is Ron Adams’s lithograph Blackburn of 2002. This portrait of Robert Hamilton Blackburn is important because he was a master printmaker who established the Printmaking Workshop in New York City. His workshop produced editions for several artists in the show including Bearden, Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold.
David C. Driskell, Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Maryland and a renowned scholar and curator, calls the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection “one of the finest that has been assembled tracing the history of art.”
Works on Paper from the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art is on view at the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center May 8 through August 1. For more information, visit www.customshousemuseum.org.