Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Seeing Things

By David Ribar

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  There's something soul-stirring about the title "Visions of My People: African-American Art in Tennessee"; it has the noble-minded ambition of an exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institution. Artists included in this locally organized show were stirred in a different sort of way when the exhibit opened at the Tennessee State Museum alongside a display of some genuine Confederate battle flags. And who could blame them? "Visions of My People" not only suggests the pride of a group of black artists linked by their ability to have visions and make art, it also evokes their particular struggle as a class set apart from the state's cultural mainstream.

Like a Smithsonian show, this "Visions" takes an historically encompassing view, comprising 79 artists who were either born here or worked in the state, from the 1930s to the present. It contains a swarm of over 200 works, sampling the range of black art produced in Tennessee from the day Will Edmondson first heard God's command to "make mirkels." Unlike many Smithsonian shows, however, far too much of the work fails to live up to the notion of what a "vision" is; some even fail as works of art. Despite these failings, and even because of them, the exhibition still merits our unqualified attention.

The exhibition guide states that the "talents, skills, and creativity of African-American artists have been, for the most part, generally omitted and ignored by scholars and writers." Greg Ridley, guest curator for the exhibition, further amplifies: "To those who receive it, recognition is irrelevant, but to those who have not, recognition is crucial to one's self-image." Elsewhere, the exhibition guide continues: "The State Museum wishes to both celebrate the vast contributions of Tennessee's African-American artists, and to give overdue recognition to their works."

Keeping that in mind, there are some profound, powerful images to be found here. You can start with the two mixed-media works by George Hunt on the title wall; if you fail to be moved by these, then perhaps you should just turn around and go back upstairs. You'll see better sculptures by Will Edmondson at Cheekwood, but the three photo-murals of him here create a spectral presence that seems to hover over the show. Bessie Harvey's root sculpture "Adam and Eve" is typical of her whimsically ingenious folk art, and like Edmondson's work, it reminds you that many Southern black artists were in fact self-taught visionaries. Knoxville-based artist Sammy Nicely's ceramic sculptures inspired by traditional African masks just keep getting more striking and elegant.

The talent of Barbara Bullock, sadly cut short two years ago, can again be admired, and Samuel Dunson, who seems to have inherited some of her gift for style, is an artist to watch closely in the future. A small portrait by Donald Early--the subject of a Scene review earlier this year--is a marvel of drawing skill. Local artist Nina Lovelace, whose intimate, poetic works deserve much broader exposure, uses her unique style of art and design to create a huge banner with a graphic force worthy of Aaron Douglas. Douglas in turn is represented by the well-known painting "Building More Stately Mansions," which mythologizes the historical role of black construction workers. Visions of a people, indeed.

On the other hand, the whole idea would have been better served by an exhibition half this size. Not only is the expertise of many works at the student level, a few artists are represented by several examples of uneven proficiency, which in turn detract from their strongest image. In addition, a number of the artists--like Minnie Miles or Dolores Harris--are not represented by one of their finest pieces. It's easy to sympathize with curator Ridley--he had this enormous space to fill, and in some cases, he seems to have settled for numbers over rigid selectivity. Obtaining the best examples from the artists he chose must have proved nearly impossible. Likewise, it's easy to sympathize with the curatorial needs of the museum staff, who found it expedient to lump most of the sculptures in one spot and the photographs in another; many of the smaller works are massed together like biological specimens, creating an uneven flow to the display.

George Hunt's "Adam," one of the works greeting visitors to the State Museum's "Visions of My People" exhibit. Illustration courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum.
That said, Ridley's choices only give the viewer that much more to ponder. For those whose only impression of black America is formed by the media instead of by direct experience, it should be eye-opening to encounter so many images that portray the family and social groups in such an overwhelmingly positive light. We forget that artists not only create such illustrations frequently, but also, in James Joyce's words, "create the uncreated conscience of [their] race." Many of the pieces in "Visions" seem designed less for the marketplace and more for the private needs of individuals at home--a kind of paean to authentic values. Even if the artists' talents or choice of style may fall short, the content generally manages to shine through, striking a very hopeful note.

Surveying the galleries should also cause viewers to consider the hurdles that black youth face trying to establish successful art careers. In this town and in the South in general, it remains a difficult way to make a living even for the few white artists who succeed. Add to this Tennessee's notorious scarcity of art education, its paucity of galleries or museums, the limited access to university training, and the lack of employment opportunities in the arts. One must respect the artists in "Visions" if only for being so stubborn, creating as they did and continue to do.

Still, the pieces on display illustrate the disadvantages that all artists face working outside art centers like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. It's evident in the unpolished execution of certain ideas or techniques; in the slack and anemic interpretations of more popular styles; in the insensitivity to surface quality that comes from looking at too many slide and magazine reproductions and not enough original works of art.

Ridley is right to note the importance of self-esteem, and his desire to imbue the living artists in the show with a feeling of pride is laudable. But that doesn't guarantee that an audience will necessarily appreciate "Visions of My People." Art is about much more than self-esteem; it's about holding oneself accountable to high standards of achievement and measuring oneself against art from all kinds of artists, both those living and working today, as well as those long dead. Furthermore, our climate of political correctness has made it notoriously difficult to separate aesthetic concerns from those of a group or a cause without sounding heartless. In the end, the quality of art has less to do with culture, class, gender, race, or even sexual preference than it does with talent and vision. Lots of artists--artists of all stripes--may indeed have visions, but precious few are visionaries.

Having made all these qualifications, I stand by my original assertion: This exhibit merits our close attention. Leaving aside questions of aesthetic quality, the most interesting aspect of the show is the divide between art that looks like it could have come from any social group and that which explores the uniqueness of black identity or issues specific to black experience. It's the works in this latter group that have the most to teach a Nashville audience precisely because they give us access to viewpoints and subjects that have historically been marginalized.

At the same time, this artistic divide cuts to the core of all the contemporary arguments about art, indeed about culture in general. Do we define ourselves first and foremost by gender, race, class, and sexual preference? Can we stand outside of those categories as an individual when we speak of our personal identity, or of our identity as an artist? And at what cost to our own sense of vision and sense of belonging do we try to answer those questions, to fit into those categories? I'm not sure our culture is willing to resolve these issues, and the wild diversity of "Visions of My People" suggests the answers are much more complicated than we're ready to accept.

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