The New York Herald writer who said in an article in 1867 that African Americans could not produce art was ignorant of the work of such talents as Edward Bannister, Robert Scott Duncanson, Charles Ethan Porter or Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Even today, African-American artists are underrepresented in the collections of major American museums: An analysis by artnet news published in September found that museum acquisitions of African-American art is less than 3 percent of total purchases. Decades after Bannister, who, fired up over the Herald article, won a spot in an important Philadelphia exhibition, there were museums that still turned blacks away at the door. (Philadelphia exhibitors almost removed the Bannister work when they discovered he was black.)
UA Little Rock is, once again, proving the folly of ignoring African-American art, with the exhibition “On Their Own Terms,” which opened Jan. 17 at UA Little Rock’s Windgate Center of Art and Design.
UA Little Rock gallery director Brad Cushman pulled together 50 works by some of America’s finest black artists — including Bannister, Duncanson, Porter and Tanner — for a show that celebrates the work of fine artists who share an affinity born of life experience.
“On Their Own Terms” is not an investigation into whether there is such a thing as “black art.” That’s a question for philosophers. Black culture and racism is, understandably, central to these modern and contemporary works, as issues of social justice have always found expression in art.
Cushman has also paired Aj Smith’s larger-than-life and amazing graphite drawing “Faces of the Delta Series: Mr. Q.T., WWII Vet,” with “Portrait of a Model,” a collage of an insouciant fellow by Benny Andrews. Both are images of men, but the greater connection is that it was Andrews who encouraged Smith to move from New York to Arkansas for a job. A third stunning mixed-media work by Alfred Conteh, “Will,” joins the male portrait lineup.
Others who contributed work from their collections are Karen and C.J. Duvall, Pamela and Anthony Vance, Karen and Kevin Cole, Aj Smith, Delita Martin, Dr. Imani Perry, Monique Meloche Gallery and Pierrette Van Cleve.
The opening reception for the exhibition is 5-7 p.m. Feb. 1. Juan Rodriguez of New York, who with Garbo Hearne loaned the many historic paintings to “On Their Own Terms,” will give a talk at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Windgate Center.