The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts November 4, 2005

Black Experience at the Allen

“Portraits of the Black Experience,” an exhibit at the Allen Memorial Art Museum through June 4, has the perfect recipe for greatness — an overwhelming subject matter and an unassuming size. Small enough to demand close study, it covers in its short space an evocative range of artistic experience, simultaneously historic and intimate.

The exhibition, which also serves as a teaching collection for Oberlin classes, was conceived primarily in response to frustration expressed over the dominance of Western Art on display at the Allen. It is curated by Susanna Newbury (OC ’05) with Stephen D. Borys, curator of Western Art at the Allen.

As the title promises, Newbury drew primarily on portraiture when choosing works for the exhibition.

“Portraiture is an immediately available genre,” she said. “It is visually accessible to almost everyone.”

Yet each picture chooses what it wants to give of its subject. On one end there is Richmond Barthe’s highly classical, highly academic “Head of a Negro.” The bust of the beautiful boy stares back, serene and idealized. Contrast this with John Wilson’s more contemporary etching, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which depicts the leader through a violence of deeply scratched lines, the body emerging darkly from them. It is a heartfelt work, the composition both spare and tangled, and the portrait refusing to present a cleanly stated, simplified view.

Identity, however, is not confined to figurative representations. The greatest strength of the show is its willingness to stretch the definition of what makes portraiture. The show includes the idea of place in its subject of personhood, and encapsulates a wide assortment of artistic mediums ranging from historical photographs to found objects.

There is the folk style of Horrace Pippin’s oil painting, “Harmonizing,” and the equally brightly colored yet more ambivalent “Conjure Woman” by Romare Bearden, whose work has a frenetic intensity even as it is both rhythmic and beautiful.

Yet most of the works are in tones of black, sepia or grey, unified further by a sense of the unsaid, or fragmentation. Carrie Mae Weems’ set of photographs, “Grabbing Snatching Blink and You Be Gone,” are focused around a specific place with specific historical connotations — Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, which was essentially a holding dock for thousands of kidnapped West Africans before they were shipped to America to be made into slaves.

The words “Grabbing Snatching Blink and You Be Gone” are not only the title of the piece, but also written in red text between the two black and white photographs of the island. They imply a history more immediate than the cold, hard facts of time and place.

“I think the works shown are attempts to counteract the silencing of African Americans throughout American history, and are in fact attempts to reassemble that history pictorially,” said Newbury.

For example, Willie Cole’s contemporary piece, “Proctor-Silex (Evidence and Presence),” has a backdrop that is a grid of burn marks where a household iron was placed on canvas. Everything is tidy and pointedly banal, yet at the same time each burn mark has its own detail, some marks barely there while in other places the canvas is completely burned through.

In front is a small, African style sculpture, but there is a catch. It is made out of the parts of an iron, a confrontation with the stifling of opportunities with which so many African Americans have been faced. Yet what is equally important about the work is that it is still a pleasure to look at — it cannot avoid the beauty and the success of something made out of not having much at all.


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