You don’t have to be a student of American history to know the 1960s was a tumultuous decade. And right at the heart of the tumult was the civil rights movement and the demand by African Americans for equality in U.S. society. Add in the assassinations of black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the violence waged by whites in the South against black civil rights protestors and the disproportionate number of black soldiers sent to Vietnam, and you had a recipe for growing African American anger.
Amid this turmoil, artists, community activists and others envisioned another way to advance the cause of African Americans. In 1968, they created The Studio Museum in Harlem as a place where artists from the African diaspora, who had historically been shut out of most museums and exhibition spaces in the U.S., could find a place to show their work and experiment with new ideas.
Just past its 50th anniversary, the museum has created a traveling exhibition, “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem,” that offers a broad look at a diverse body of work — nearly 100 paintings, mixed media pieces, photographs, fabric art, sculpture and more — that has passed through or found a permanent home in the New York City facility. Seeing the exhibit, which is presented roughly chronologically, also offers a story about the trajectory of black artists and their work over half a century, especially as it showcases early work by artists who have now gone on to greater notoriety.
“Black Refractions” is making its only Northeast appearance at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), where it will run through April 12. SCMA officials say it’s an honor to host the show, especially as 2020 marks a significant anniversary: As the SCMA website states, “the museum we appreciate today — where our community connects with art, ideas and each other — was set in motion 100 years ago.”
It’s a fascinating exhibit, staged in collaboration with the American Federation of the Arts, in part because The Studio Museum, according to Connie Choi, curator of “Black Refractions,” was not initially envisioned as a collecting museum, but rather as a venue for experimental work by younger black artists in particular.
“But the museum generated so much interest and enthusiasm that by 1970 it started being gifted many new pieces of art,” Choi said last week during an opening tour of the SCMA show, which she conducted with Emma Chubb, SCMA’s contemporary art curator. “So now,” Choi added, “we have over 2,500 pieces.”
About 16 years ago, The Studio Museum also developed an official mission statement that declared the museum to be a “nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally” as well as a place to showcase work “that has been inspired and influenced by black culture.” As such, the exhibit features work by artists from Africa, the Caribbean, England and other locales — some of these artists now live in the U.S. — and some pieces speak directly to the experience of African Americans.
One of the most striking pieces, for instance, is the roughly 30-foot “River” by Maren Hassinger, a sinuous sculpture of entwined heavy rope and steel chains. It’s wound across the floor of one of two large gallery spaces at SCMA dedicated to the exhibit, offering a striking counterpoint to the artworks on the walls. The chains can’t help but evoke the history of slavery in the U.S., as well as the infamous Middle Passage, in which enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas beginning in the late 16th century.
But the title also speaks to Hassinger’s interest in the environment — she grew up in the post-World War II boom in southern California but attended Bennington College in Vermont — as the artist considers nature “a means to unify humanity,” as exhibit notes put it.
Painter Kehinde Wiley has gained fame in recent years for his unique portraits — including one he did in 2018 of former President Barack Obama, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian — in which he sets black and brown men against unusual backgrounds. In “Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence),” which he painted in 2001 as a graduate student in art, he offers a large (6 x 6 feet) portrait of a black man, wearing a suit and tie, against a simple, open background of light blue. But the man’s hair flows from his head in dark currents that swirl across large sections of the canvas, symbolically “claiming space … from which black artists are often excluded,” according to exhibit notes.
Kehinde, like many other artists whose work is featured in “Black Refractions,” once was an artist in residence at The Studio Museum, and Choi says that program has been both a key component of the museum’s history — “It’s given opportunities to a lot of artists to try out new work, and for people to see that” — and a means for helping launch those artists to greater success and exposure.
“It’s very exciting and pleasing to us to have some of this earlier work by artists who now have these amazing careers,” she said.
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Source: Daily Hampshire Gazette