WINTER PARK – Bright sunlight warms the brown skin tones in Hughie Lee-Smith’s “Balancing Act.”
A row of miniature mammy dolls stands before a kitchen knife in Mildred Howard’s “Don’t Call Me Nanny!”
Graceful curves and glowing appendages blend into Richard Hunt’s bronze “Bird of Paradise.”
Metal bows sway at the slightest breath in John Scott’s colorful “Doorway to the Blues.”
Lee-Smith, Howard, Hunt and Scott are part of “Beyond the Veil: Art of African American Artists at Century’s End” at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park.
The eclectic exhibit was arranged for the 10th Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. But it was designed, like many millennial shows, to take the pulse of the visual arts. In this case, viewers can see art by 21 of the leading, living black painters, sculptors, collagists and installation artists.
The 40 pieces range from the simplified, figurative urban scenes of painter Jacob Lawrence to a pre-Columbian-style bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett.
Abstract works include one of Sam Gilliam’s raked landscapes. “Starry Crown” typifies painter and muralist John Bigger’s mastery of geometric patterning, symbolism and layering.
A pioneer in assemblage work, Betye Saar is represented, as is her daughter, Alison Saar. Faith Ringgold displays two “No More War” story quilts. Gordon Parks’ photos of landscapes lend movement and personality to inanimate objects.
Two works from Artis Lane’s “Emerging Into Spirit” series are bronze studies of the human form – one of which is based on Djimon Hounsou, the lead actor in the acclaimed film “Amistad.”
As a bonus, the museum will show its two Romare Bearden collages in a side gallery.
Guest curator Mary Jane Hewitt, one of the original editors of the International Review of African American Art and a corporate art consultant, chose the artists for their talent and innovative styles.
Her goal was to explore their motivations and places in a profession that tends to evaluate art increasingly by whether it will sell well.
Hewitt examined the artists in relation to two prominent philosophies that have shaped the study of art by blacks during this century.
W.E.B. Du Bois asserted in 1903 that black Americans routinely juggled two personalities, their native selves and a “veiled” self that was acceptable to white America.
Historian Alain Locke posited in his classic 1925 anthology “The New Negro” that people of African descent have myriad divergent and contradictory tendencies, with racial oppression being the sole commonality.
“I was exploring what, beyond the veil of that dual consciousness as described by Du Bois, exists within this group – in terms of what motivated, challenged, impeded them,” says Hewitt, who lives in Los Angeles. “Locke suggested … we are as diverse as the white population – particularly in terms of class and geography.”
She decided the artists in “Beyond the Veil” created, and prospered from, art that has a common ethnic link but differs according to gender, age, background and familial ties.
That reflects a shifting of trends, Hewitt says.
Historically in America visual art was devalued if it featured Negroid images or had been produced by people of African descent.
“Early in the century, many were doing mainstream work and trying to suppress anything that might be African-American in style, although a lot of the subject matter was African-American,” says Clarence Otis, an Orlando-area resident who lent three works to the exhibit and whose collection has been featured in ARTnews magazine.
Today, Afrocentric concepts have “gotten into how the work is made, the creative process,” he says. “Now that means that abstract artists aren’t accused of running away from being black.”
While race is less a factor, major museums and galleries still are reluctant to buy or market works by black artists – unless they are controversial, artists and museum directors say. Controversy sells.
It’s partly the result of recent cuts in government funding for art institutions, Hewitt says.
“Even well-endowed art museums have had to become more cautiously innovative to remain financially and programmatically viable,” Hewitt writes in the full-color catalog that accompanies the show.
As a result, “the black art show remains primarily the only venue where these artists can get a show,” says Arthur Blumenthal, executive director of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
Jeff Donaldson, a former dean at Howard University and a political painter, points out that fewer than 200 artists make a living exclusively from their art.
Most must teach to survive.
Only a handful of black artists, including Richard Hunt and Jacob Lawrence, support themselves solely through their works, ‘ Donaldson says. “And these are all artists who have exhibited internationally.”
So two years ago, Hewitt began asking artists and their agents to choose pieces they wanted shown, and the Winter Park museum agreed to arrange sponsorship for “Beyond the Veil.”
Staff writer Aissatou Sidime works in Tampa and can be reached at (813) 259-7919 or by e-mail at [email protected]