Ancestry & Innovation African American Art, From the American Folk Art Museum, Through September 4

Clementine Hunter (1886/1887â1988), âBlack Matriarch,â Melrose Plantation , Natchitoches , Louisiana ; c. 1970s, oil on cardboard. Courtesy of American Folk Art Museum .

In a survey of the ecstatic New Orleans visionary Sister Gertrude Morgan at the American Folk Art Museum last year, there was a film of her conducting a service in the modest home she had turned into a bright, resplendent chapel. Already elderly, she is dressed like a bride in a simple white dress, her dark, perspiring face deeply lined, her hands rough and gnarled from a lifetime of work. She is banging a tambourine on her side, and she is singing�chanting�in voice that is both cracked and authoritative. What is by turns compelling, disarming, and even embarrassing about the painting, poetry, and music of Sister Gertrude Morgan is its immediacy and raw conviction. One cannot doubt that this is an art that issues urgently and without mediation from knowledge of worldly suffering and transcendent vision, and perhaps also a longing for the just serenity of paradise.

The appeal of outsider and folk artists comes in part from a sense that their work is driven, not by career or the whims of the global art market or insular philosophical issues internal to the history of art, but by something more like personal need�Sister Gertrude Morgan did what she did because she felt called upon to do it by divine powers. Art should feel like it was made out of necessity, and while there are recent artists whose work has a similar kind of burning, inner urgency�think of Louise Bourgeois and Agnes Martin�such figures are, at best, infrequent. The importance of the exhibit Ancestry & Innovation: African American Art from the American Folk Art Museum , however, extends far beyond issues of outsider and folk art. The impact of the specifically African-American culture that rose up out of the abyss of slavery and continued evolving on through the twentieth century to the present is closely woven into the fabric of American cultural history. This is well documented in the case of music and literature. Ancestry & Innovation , curated by Stacy C. Hollander and Brooke Davis Anderson, makes a strong case for the significance of the history of African-American visual culture.

The painting and drawing in the show moves fluidly between religious subjects and scenes from daily life; for these artists, one senses, Christianity, with its emblems of suffering and promises of redemption, is not a separate, cordoned off realm, but is an integral fact of life on earth. Sam Doyle (1906�1985) of St. Helena , South Carolina painted �I’ll Go Down� (1970) on slanted strips of wood set in a box. It is a crucifixion scene and looks as though it were painted on a set of old, faded, wooden window blinds. Clementine Hunter’s �Black Christ on Cross� (1972) is painted simply and directly on a piece of old stained cardboard that looks like it might have been picked up out of a dumpster. Born in 1886 or 1887 and died in 1988 in rural Louisiana, the blackness of Hunter’s Christ may be partly a political gesture (her regal �Black Matriarch�(1975) looks like an African Queen), but it is also born of a very personal sense that Christ’s life and passion are incarnated in the lives of ordinary African Americans. Both Doyle’s and Hunter’s use of homely, found materials is not part of a self-conscious aesthetic, as it is in the early work of an artist like Robert Rauschenberg, but it still gives their pieces a casual intimacy and depth: Christianity is, after all, from its beginnings, the religion of the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering, the lost. It isn’t simply a question of whether we really need the opulent Crucifixions and Madonna’s of great masters like Raphael; it is whether works like Hunter’s lovely �Baby Jesus and Three Wise Men� (1960) or Sister Gertrude Morgan’s small works on paper, with their rising, fiery trees and swarming sky, are in fact more powerfully and luxuriantly spiritual.

One of the most unusual artists in Ancestry & Innovation is the Georgia preacher J.B. Murry (1908�1988). Using watercolor and pencil, Murry created a mystical script that swarms, along with eyes, faces, suns, planets, and vegetation, across pages divided up into grids that look like musical scores. In one, faces and sunbursts stream across the page interspersed with palm fronds. In another, a congested army of grotesquely distorted faces is overwritten with expressive fragments of script, and in still another, larger work are a variety of obsessive marks and purple and red cells. Murry’s drawings are not really partially abstract depictions, but rather a form of notation in which the act of writing itself pushed him across the divide between the material and the spiritual; they are, like Sister Gertrude Morgan’s chants, a kind of mystical practice. And the realm invoked by his drawings is both intimate and frightening.

A kind of spiritual naturalism is present in Clementine Hunter’s �Funeral� (1950), as mourners bearing great bouquets of flowers ascend a ridge toward a simple church, the stretch of sky a creamy pink. In Hunter’s �Washing Day� (1971), women stir a giant, steaming cauldron, their clotheslines even with the horizon. Similarly in �Nellie Mae in Her Garden� (1979), Nellie Mae Rowe (1900�1982) has various figures and dogs in a jungle of deep blue, purple, red, and green, while Thornton Dial Sr.’s charming �Fishing for Love� (1990) has a huge glistening carp rising up beneath a naked woman. Though not included in Ancestry and Innovation , the drawings of the practically indigent Alabama artist Bill Traylor (1854�1949) are well represented in the Folk Museum ’s collection, and are worth noting. In a drawing currently on display, a man donning a peculiar tall hat is being dragged behind a horse and plow, the whole drawing almost goofily skipping across the page. Traylor’s drawings are like pictographs of life in the South, jotted down from street corners as it happens, full of one-legged drunks and primping women, and his sense of humor is wicked and sarcastic. Moses Tolliver’s three ferocious self-portraits in the Folk Museum ’s collection are painted with house paint on plywood, their garish purple and orange faces deranged into mounds of flesh, big-toothed grins and fat sensuous mouths that bear a remarkable resemblance to the paintings of Francis Bacon, though like Bill Traylor’s work are not part of Ancestry & Innovation .

One weakness of Ancestry & Innovation is the emphasis on artists working in the rural south. After all, African-American experience in the twentieth century stretched out of the plantations to urban centers like New York , Philadelphia , Pittsburgh , Detroit , and Chicago . This is partly justified by the fact that the history of most African Americans, and African-American culture in general, passed through the rural south. Nonetheless, there are a number of works in the Folk Art Museum ’s permanent collection that exhibit a more specifically urban sensibility. Purvis Young’s wild construction stands some ten feet high, fashioned from crates and is painted over with swarming city mobs of people, cars, and horses. Kevin Sampson of Newark , New Jersey began making art after the sudden death of his wife, newborn son, and cousin. His �Mother Oatman: Lay Flat in the Wagon� (1988) is a funereal pedestal on top of which is a kind of tabernacle covered with shiny stones and floral patterns. Willie Leroy Elliot’s �The Last Frontier� (1988�1989) is a love seat cobbled together out of scrap wood, a face glowering on top and a long, painted carving of a snake coiling around mirrors and shards of glass.

The real highlight of Ancestry & Innovation , however, involves a return to the rural south and to explicitly religious symbolism. After raising eleven children and then experiencing her own mother’s death, Bessie Harvey (1929�1994) of Alcoa , Tennessee started making art for its therapeutic value. In �A Thousand Tongues Can Tell� (1991�1993), tree branches torque up into a face made of shells and stones, blue and purple wooden tongues spewing out. The multiple tongues represent the corrosiveness of gossip, and the sculpture, as a whole, is a kind of totem warding off evil. In the equally stunning �Black Horse of Rev.� (1991), a snarl of black branches forms a rearing horse on which rides a cloaked figure with a nasty red mouth-hole and streaming hair. It is, of course, the horse of the apocalypse from Revelations .

The beautiful strip quilts in Ancestry & Innovations , which were featured in a separate show of the quilt makers from Gee’s Bend , Alabama last year, are on a different register from other work in the show. They are not overtly driven by personal grief or religious vision, but are part of a tradition of communal women’s labor. Nonetheless, these quilts have a vibrancy, formal inventiveness, and emotional range that distinguish them from design or decoration. In Lucinda Toomer’s (1890�1983) �Strip Diamond Quilt� (1975), there are long vertical stripes of brown and red over which are placed roughly cut diamond shapes in green, red, and black. Leola Pettway’s �Star of Bethlehem with Satellite Stars Quilt� (1999) is especially dazzling, with its explosion of jagged white, black, pink, and green star shapes, framed by the points of triangles on the quilt’s four corners. And in the ground floor atrium of the museum is Bessie B. Telfair’s (1913�1986) �Freedom Quilt.� The numerous versions of Telfair’s �Freedom Quilt� were all made in response to being fired from a job for trying to register to vote. It has slatted red stripes interspersed with white squares and big dark blue letters spelling out the word �freedom.� There is an oral legend according to which quilts encoded instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. Telfair’s quilt is of course not encrypted. It is an alternate version of the American flag boldly asserting what America is supposed to represent. And it is an assertion�a shout�that is surely as urgent now as ever.

Artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan, Bessie Harvey, or Bessie B. Telfair offer a visual and emotional vernacular that is by turns humble and intense, but they also provide access to regional sensibilities that have largely ceased to exist in our connected, globalized society. This, however, provides ample room for nostalgia. After all, shouldn’t education produce artists that are deeper and more reflective in themselves and in relationship to the past? The answer is probably both yes and no. Most of us are, however, disassociated from a visceral sense of history and spirituality, living as we do at a moment when virtually everything�music, religion, human suffering�is instantaneously torn from its context and translated into the language of the market place. The art in Ancestry & Innovation is of historical interest�and it would be worthwhile to know the extent to which the gestures in this work can be traced back to practices in Africa �but it is also more than that. It gives the viewer a sense of what it means to make art outside the parameters of the �art world.� This is art that has an inner necessity one can feel.

Contributor

Daniel Baird

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