Fari Nzinga considers the importance of portraiture and representation in the group show currently on view at Stella Jones Gallery.
The dominant art movement of the contemporary moment could be said to be representational portraiture. In a 2016 timeline in New York magazine outlining the visual, artistic, and cultural impacts that identity politics have made over the last three decades, art critic Rachel Corbett asserts, “[F]irst-person art [is], undeniably, an art-historical movement—the movement of our time.” It is the idea of the self in general—and the subjectivity of Black women both as subjects and objects of art in particular—that animates “HERstory,” a group exhibition currently on view at Stella Jones Gallery that highlights the beautiful, complex, and multifaceted nature of Black women’s experiences and contributions to society in the United States.
The exhibition includes painting, collage, mixed-media, textile art, and sculpture. While there are over 20 artists’ works on view, they are not crowded on the white walls. Space and bright lighting ensures that you will see all the detail and nuance of the works displayed. Disappointingly, there are no labels for the works, perhaps a move designed to create more dialogue with the curator and gallery owner, who is usually on site daily. Organized by Stella Jones herself, the impetus behind the exhibition is to present a range of works that are relatable in their representations of Black women—our shared collective memory, historical narratives, and daily lives.
Though the works are inspired, in part, by the many different threads of identity that comprise the rich tapestries that define and represent Black womanhood, the artists count both men and women amongst their ranks. Featuring works from such venerated artists as Samella Lewis, John T. Scott, Elizabeth Catlett, and Faith Ringgold, it is important to note that this exhibition in large part represents a particular lineage of U.S.-based artists and their styles. With many of the artists either dead or no longer practicing, these are not cutting-edge, experimental works by Black artists grappling with representation today. And several of the artists from this generation have since been criticized for their conservative aesthetics and their adherence to respectability politics in order to gain mainstream acceptance. Perhaps geared to an older generation of arts enthusiasts, this exhibition still represents “our story as told by us, as opposed to the negative images you see of Black women in the popular media,” says gallerist Beryl Johns.
William Pajaud’s watercolor Strolling Down Rampart Street, 1996, is simultaneously autobiographical and ethnographic, depicting a matriarchal figure, dressed in a yellow suit with matching purse and church hat, ushering a child past three shotgun-style buildings with crosses atop, suggesting a cemetery. The artist’s father was a jazz musician who frequently played at funerals, Jones says, and this image depicts a quiet moment before the revelry. Displayed alongside Benny Andrews’ painting, Light of the Cross, 1995, the two works draw attention to the role of women in the church, the role of spirituality in women’s lives, and the central role of religion in the life of Black communities in the American South.
Another theme arising from this exhibition is the intimacy of domesticity—as in Wayne Manns’ And Then There Were Grandma’s Biscuits, 2017, a colorful painting depicting a crowded breakfast table; Ademola’s Dinner at Sunset, 1978, a semi-abstracted sketch of three seated figures; and Georgette Baker’s Interior Room, 2016, another colorful painting depicting a bedroom scene. Of course, while Black women have been known to stitch together families and communities within the sanctuaries of the religious and domestic spheres, no representation of the contributions of Black women to society would be complete without centering the theme of resistance. Charly Palmer’s Little Rock Nine, 2009, is a limited-edition print of a mixed-media work which intermingles painting with archival documents such as newspaper clippings and photographs of the Little Rock Nine as they set about the task of desegregating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957 following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Created in 2007, the original work commemorated the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case and its aftermath. Now, in 2017, the piece is as strident and relevant as ever with its bright color palette, subliminal messages of courage and solidarity, and hidden images of African-American protestors and the violent repression they faced.
Another of Palmer’s works, Innocence, 2010, depicts a young Black woman donning a white dress in a field of colorful flowers, with a church steeple in the background. Upon closer inspection, the artist has embedded the image of a bill advertising a missing slave girl, whom the master believed had been stolen by a rival slaver. Legend has it that she fell in love with a man enslaved on another nearby plantation and that the two absconded together to freedom. “That’s what [Palmer] does so well,” says Johns, “he teaches you your history while you enjoy his beautiful art.” The effectiveness of “HERstory” in communicating with its audience can perhaps be read in the number of works that have been sold to private collectors, many of whom are Black women themselves. The range of works and media is impressive and allows for each viewer to find something with which to deeply connect. But don’t take my word for it; go see for yourself.
“HERstory” is on view through July 31, 2017, at Stella Jones Gallery (201 St. Charles Avenue) in New Orleans.