Monday, July 19, 2010

Freedom of Expression: Politics and Aesthetics in African American Art

Freedom of Expression: Politics and Aesthetics in African American Art was one of the featured exhibitions in the third quarterly electronic Update to the Guide to Black Art Exhibitions in 2010. Freedom of Expression, which was on view March 4 - June 13, 2010, was organized and curated by Julie Levin Caro, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in American Art at Colby College (Waterville, Maine) to support her African American art survey course as well as several other Colby courses.  

As mentioned in the Guide,"this exhibition considered a range of responses by African American artists to social, political, and aesthetic concerns. The artworks address racism and the legacy of slavery, document and celebrate African American culture and experience, and explore abstract and conceptual modes of representation."  Works were featured by the following artists: Edward M. Bannister, Romare Bearden, Allan R. Crite, David Driskell, Sam Gilliam, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, Alison Saar, Henry O. Tanner, James VanDerZee, Charles White, Fred Wilson, and others.”

Although the exhibition has ended, the process of its development is worth discussion and replication on a broader scale. Key in its development was the practical application of theory that was brought out of the classroom and into the gallery with student participation. The exhibition was featured in two of the Colby Museum of Art galleries, De Ferrari Gallery and Gourley Gallery. In addition, it was created as a student curated web exhibition. Class member Sally Klose built the Freedom of Expression Web site with Shaquan Huntt and staff members of the Colby Academic Information Technology Services Department. Ten students in Professor Caro’s African American art survey "researched and wrote the descriptive texts for the artwork displayed on the ARTISTS pages, and they participated in several exhibition-related events, including the presentation of their research in two public gallery talks."
In addition to having direct contact and a firsthand study of the art work, "the exhibition offered Professor Caro’s students the opportunity to reflect upon issues of the canonization of African American art, the formation of a black aesthetic, and the politics of museum display."

In Caro's words, additional highlights included:
  • "...having the collectors Toni and Fred Green visit the campus for the opening, where they spoke with students and faculty informally as they toured the galleries and viewed their works in the context of the exhibition. 
  • ...luncheon that Prof. Caro planned on the subject of African American art collecting for students in her African American art survey course as well as students and faculty participating in courses on race and visual culture, African American culture and African Diaspora experience. Approximately 25 students attended. Toni and Fred Green, who lent pieces by Glenn Ligon, Jacob Lawrence, and Mr. Imagination spoke about their collection of contemporary African American art, how it came to be, why they collected, and how they collected from galleries and visiting with artists at their studios. They also spoke in practical terms about buying on layaway and the fact that one doesn’t have to be wealthy to collect art and the value of having ‘real’ works of art not just reproduction in one's home, even if it’s a small drawing or a print and the value of getting to know artists especially when they are starting out.  
  • Colby College music professor, Eric Thomas, spoke about the two pieces he lent to the exhibition (a landscape painting by Edward Mitchell Bannister and a 19th century doll quilt by an anonymous artist from the South). Thomas' mother, Johnnie Lockhart Thomas, collected these works and many other art and historical works, a passion that grew out of her interest in African American history and her own family history of black cowboys and entrepreneurs, who lived in Montana since the 19th century."      
Freedom of Expression: Politics and Aesthetics in African American Art provided a full exhibition experience, including a Web site that provided a virtual museum exhibit experience, a Film Series, student gallery talks, gallery talk with Professor Julie Levin Caro, and gallery visits from local elementary and middle school students. My hopes are that this exhibition will serve as a prototype for curating annual professor-student exhibits for the coming years. I can only imagine that the collaboration, leadership, and team work contributed to the overall success of the exhibition. Congratulations to Professor Caro and her students.      

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