Richmond Art Center showcases diversity of ideas
in Living Black exhibit
By Lou Fancher
If making art is messy, marking the parameters of art made through the lens of the African Diaspora is messier.
Case in point, the 63 artworks included in The Art of Living Black exhibition at the Richmond Art Center. The work of 44 regional artists of African descent, on display through March 4, refuses easy categorization, other than one: captivating.
“It’s difficult to encapsulate the gist of what is here,” says exhibition coordinator Orlonda Uffre. “Artists focus on what moves them. The African Diaspora is multiple experiences: sociopolitical, emotional, psychological … everything.”
Indeed, from Gene Dominique’s arresting Black Lives Matter photographs to Nyé Lyn Tho’s magnificent “Natural Heir” series, digital images celebrate the nobility and humanity of African and African American people.
But other works, like Stephen Bruce’s iridescent “Oasis in Azure,” an abstract painting that leaves an unforgettable impression of having been submerged underwater, are demonstrations of the artists’ mastery of color and composition more than they are political reflections.
Expanding further into category-defying range, Justice Renaissance’s graceful works on wood reference multiple influences — mosaics, stained glass windows, sculpture, graphic design. And Renata Gray’s “Afri-Paisley Teapot w/2 Mugs” makes ceramics perform a lively visual dance.
“There are landscape paintings also, that to me are escape, like a meditation,” says Uffre. “They give me freedom to step away from current events and find respite.”
African Diaspora history, she adds, can’t be pinned to a monolithic world view. “There’s such diversity. To think otherwise reminds me of people who think of Africa as a country, instead of as a continent with 57 countries.”
With the Internet providing unbounded access to relevant reporting, but also to false information and “rabbit holes,” Uffre says young artists have both increased freedom and responsibility when seeking authentic references or sharing their work. “You still have to know what to look for,” she says.
Perhaps for that reason, the annual Living Black exhibition, founded by sculptor Jan Hart-Schuyers and painter Rae Louise Hayward, showcases not only young, emerging talent, but also established artists.
Julee Richardson’s evocative wall sculpture, “Neema,” displays the Brentwood-based artist’s skill and mature handling of expression in a woman’s lightly scarred face and thick, wavelike, textured headdress. Valerie Brown-Troutt’s collage with tissue in “Mama’s Gaze: Spoken Words Not Needed,” is judicious and instructive in its simplicity — arguably an indication of her broad spectrum-life as an artist, educator and pastor. The title alone suggests an awareness born of experience that art without words is an effective means of communication.
Which doesn’t mean that an artists’ talk and reception Feb. 4 will be a silent occasion.
“Artists are happy to speak about their work, even if they often say the works speak for themselves,” says Jan Wurm, RAC exhibitions director and curator of art. According to Wurm, language is often the way that people enter into and understand art. “Having that opening is critical: especially for a community art center that represents the people who live here.”
Wurm says the marketplace for art has traditionally favored the life experience and identities of wealthy art collectors, institutions like the Catholic Church, or social classes like the bourgeois that represent a Eurocentric, materialistic mindset.
“With those values, women and artists of color find it hard to find a venue for engagement,” she says. “That is why we are so committed to this show.”
Uffre says many artists lack a place or the resources for creating art, but manage to defy environment and circumstance. “The African Diaspora continues to be creative, despite overt racism, financial and housing issues and other constant struggles. That’s the essence of Black culture and why it is everywhere. But it’s been assimilated and taken: look at the history of jazz. How many people realize it’s roots? The dominant culture claims genius as their own.”
Fortunately, artists in the annual Living Black exhibit aren’t shy about reclamation. Uffre’s mixed media piece, “Gaslight,” embeds and makes irremovable the textures and patterns of her ancestry and the cityscapes and swirling lights of her current, real time experience.
In self-taught artist Jared McGriff”s multimedia “Them Crow,” the iconic birds and fractured telephone pole resonate with historic and contemporary themes and a self-styled approach that is personal, unique. Uffre says that by bringing forward “little gems that pop up” in African culture — past and present — society can “take a step forward” and artists of color will be given “a deserved seat at the table.”