Folk Art Show For The Self Taught African-American Artists
The Saint Louis Art Museum is the chosen venue for the exhibition titled “Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum” that opened on the 19th of June this year. This event is a treasure trove of works by 15 African-American artists each with a distinct style and media that one expects to witness when entering the terrain of “self-taught” or “outsider” folk artists.
Among the oldest of the pieces by African-American artists some date as far back as the mid-19th century. These works of art were done by those that probably epitomized the “outsiders” of the industry as they were then slaves. The name of one of the artists is known as “Dave” inscribed his name on one of the pieces, a large jug that he sculpted. The American Folk Art Museum curators consider this signing of artwork as a radical act, as literacy was denied to the slaves in those times. What sets this work apart even more so was the fact that the piece was dated to October 26, 1853, in a time when, as per the slave autobiographers, the slaves usually did not follow the times and dates as per the conventional calendar system.
It is unfortunate however the slave artists who gave us iconic masterpieces like the Whig Rose and Swag Border quilt couldn’t be recognized. However, we do have documentary proof of these being made by enslaved artisans whose credit was conveniently reaped by the slave lords or slaveholders who were considered responsible for them. Surprisingly, the oppressive and drastic conditions of the slaves was never reflected in the serene beauty of these works.
“Freedom Quilt” (1983) a design by Jessie B. Telfair could, in fact can be interpreted as a response to the tradition of slave quilts. This African-American quilt has a pattern that is simply the word “Freedom” as a repeat for seven times, indicating the value, worth, and the desperation for the idea of being free.
Freedom, in fact is an idea that runs through the entire collection, reflected through a variety of angles, proportion, materials, and foresight. Lonnie Holley and Thornton Dial may have been working approximately a decade apart but are similar in their three dimensional approach and expression through striking medleys. They however, stand far apart in their approach and styles as Holley’s “Don’t Go Crossing My Fence” (1994) has a humorous touch incorporating a mop, garden hose, and base of a lamp and Dial’s sensitively titled “Bird’s Got To Have Somewhere To Roost” (2012) features creatively designed usage of carpet scarps with diverse materials like metal and wood.
The showcase include works by artists who have used wood and steel as a canvas and mark on it either through painting or other unconventional techniques. An untitled piece from 1989 by William L. Hawkins consists of a house imagery painted on Masonite using housepaint and a fabulous incorporation of varied collage elements. “People Celebrating” is a unique work where it is tough to mark where the frame ends and the artwork begins. This artwork of the 1990s by Purvis Young consists of frames arranged within frames and stick figures drawn in an indistinct childlike manner.
This childlike quality in freehand is maintained in more such works. An untitled piece featuring human figures painted on metal (1976) by Mary T. Smith gives an impression of an innocent representation of the power figures of Africa. The local flavor of African aesthetic culture and roadside signages is carried on in the almost cartoonish human figures in “Rocking Mary/Mr. Fool” (1983) on either side of a corrugated tin roofing.
Among all this imagery lies “Pregnant Lady” (1996), a haunting imagery on a rusted sheet metal where a pregnant woman is shown collapsed as she is dying of AIDS.
The exhibition also showcases two distinct works on paper and two intriguing works on cardboard by African-American artists. The colorful psychedelic doodles titled “Singlair” by Melvin Way in the late 20th century is a work on paper where scattered numbers and letters create a mystic world. J.B. Murray’s untitled work on paper is a combination of the fabulous media that is essentially every child’s dream – crayons, watercolors, and ink. It is an eclectic burst of colorful letters and suggestive haunting figures using watercolors smudged with hand and detailed by fuzzy dots of ink for features. The outsiders as they are called are known to favor cardboard, the most local of mediums for their artistic release. This artistic treasure trove showcases Bill Traylor’s cardboard work, an untitled excursion in poster paint and pencil (1941). A menagerie of birds, animals, and objects are balanced precariously in an intriguing manner and is sure to hold the viewers’ interest.
“New Jerusalem” (1970) by Sister Gertrude Morgan reflects the prophetic vision that is associated with African-American folk art with acrylic and tempera scintillating reds and yellows applied on to cardboard. Holy ghosts are depicted leaving the graves and the evangelist strides up to the center as she preaches.