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Art: Sixty years of African American art on exhibit in Harrisburg

Art: Sixty years of African American art on exhibit in Harrisburg

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David Driskell art

On display at the Susquehanna Art Museum until Jan. 22 is David C. Driskell’s “Woman in Interior,” 2006, silkscreen, collage and woodcut.

As the excitement continues to swirl around The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the Midstate is fortunate to have the Susquehanna Art Museum’s exhibition “African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center” on display to honor the work of some very important contemporary black artists right in our own backyard.

The exhibition honors the legacy of the landmark exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950,” curated by professor David C. Driskell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976.

“African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center” is curated by Robert E. Steele and Dorit Yaron, the David C. Driskell Center’s former executive director and current acting director, and by independent scholar, Adrienne L. Childs.

The exhibit reflects the growing prominence and complexity of the field of African American Art over the last 60 years. Forty two artists are represented in “African American Art Since 1950” by 49 works from the Driskell Center Permanent Art Collection, which is located at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The exhibit includes works by such renowned artists as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold and Sam Gilliam, and it couples their work with exciting new visionaries, including Chakaia Booker, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker.

Examining the exhibition as a whole, one cannot ignore the numerous influences upon the African American culture on display. The importance of religion and faith is evident in works such as Margot Humphrey’s “The Last Bar-B-Que,” a colorful lithograph that reinterprets the “Last Supper” into a multicultural feast.

Music, especially the evolution of jazz in America, is featured in several pieces including Faith Ringgold’s “You Put the Devil in Me,” a bright serigraph of a sultry vocalist and her accompanying band. African-American jazz and blues music is honored as the invaluable contribution to history of American music.

The importance of heritage and legacy is prominent in many works. Many pieces actually incorporate vintage family photos as centerpieces of a greater story. Radcliffe Bailey’s “Until I Die/Georgia Trees and the Upper Room” combines a photograph of young, black man with painted text honoring lynching victims amidst layers of paint. Similarly, Floyd Newsum’s “When We Reflect” incorporates photos of a small male child, a young man and Frederick Douglass to signify the stages of life in this Neo-Expressionist mixed media work.

Tragedy and adversity experienced over the centuries have equally influenced the African American experience. Melvin Edwards’ found object sculpture “Sippi Eye” from the Lynch Fragment series, is unmistakable in representing the shackles of a slave. The catastrophic impacts of Hurricane Katrina are recalled in the swirling lithograph “Katrina Footprints Drawn ...” by Howardena Pindel, which recalls the devastation faced by communities in New Orleans.

It is important to keep in mind that despite the many shared experiences and heritage of the black artists, they did not create in a vacuum, and therefore the undeniable influences by the major art movements and techniques of the last fifty years are also evident.

From Jacob Lawrence’s Modernist “We Declare Ourselves Independence” and Felrath Hines’ hard edge geometric abstraction in “Party’s Over,” to William T. Williams’ color field creation, “Deacon’s Day,” many of these pieces have a rightful place in the continuum of art styles throughout history.

The intersection of black culture and contemporary artistic style is perfectly illustrated in Frank Smith’s “Improvisation from a Patched Quilt” as the influences combine bold geometric African textiles, the inspiration of jazz improvisation and the modernist abstraction methods of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.

The work of artists displayed in the exhibit honor both their ancestral and artistic legacies in the production of art that not only pays homage to their heritage but also to the important movements of the art world pointing to a positive, inclusive, multi-cultural future. This exhibition speaks to both the African-American experience and the richness of its role in tapestry of modern American art.

“African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center” is on view through Jan. 22 at the Susquehanna Art Museum. The museum is located at 1401 N. Third St., Harrisburg.

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $8; $5 for teachers, seniors and veterans; and free for children younger than 12. Free parking is available at the rear of the building. For additional information on the museum and exhibitions, visit its website at

Joseph George holds degrees in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent over 25 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.


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