Category Archives: Fine Arts

W is for…

KARA WALKER

Who remembers as a child when you would make life size silhouettes of yourself by tracing yourself at school in art class? Stepping back and seeing this representation of yourself allowed every kid to play Peter Pan for a few minutes. Artist Kara Walker takes this technique to a another level, with her wall scenes that explore themes of race, gender, and sexuality. Her work has earned her a McArthur Fellowship (at the time she was the youngest fellow ever honored) and earned her the Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2007.

Her technique employs painting, drawing, and cut-paper silhouettes she adheres to walls depicting elaborate scenes referencing history. Her scale ranges from individual life sized to full room cycloramas. Some even include live performance, light displays, or video features. Walker questions our perceptions with images from slavery taken from the text books we all grew up with. Kara’s art is controversial, often forcing people to examine stereotypes and cariacture. Her pieces walk a fine line between social critique and exaggeration, both in subjects depicted and the features of the people she represents. Her work makes you confront your own identity with regards to race.

 
 
 
“I’m reducing things down a lot, but I’m also characterizing everything and everyone as a black thing, and it comes from a way of viewing the world, looking for blackness, in its good and nefarious forms.” – Kara Walker

Playing with emotions of desire and shame are also themes Walker’s work explores. Her fun caricature appear cartoon-esque and inviting, making u want to view the jovial moments in her scenes, but then there is always a twist. She also depicts very violent acts of hatred, violation and pain, evidenced by her images of sexual assault, domination, misogyny, and belittling. Her vignettes tell a clear story, where she draws material from history- both fact and fiction. It is clear to see influences from Southern novels and movies represented throughout her work. There is a slight ironic humor in her work, often evoking the nervous laughter at the banal jokes or “toliet humor” around the acts her subjects depict. This depicts the absurdity of slavery and our constructs of race, sexuality, power, and American history. As a viewer you are challenged to question your own reactions to her work… are you too a part of the problems she exposes? The artist also has website with dialogue questions and activities to accompany her work and allow viewers to respond online, encouraging her viewers to not be passive participants.

For her critical look at blacks in America and her attention to detail that goes beyond the walls itself, I applaud Kara Walker for her thought-provoking pieces. Her bravery and boldness to depict scenes that are controversial and at times disarming forces us all to confront our own beliefs and behavior. She takes seemingly simplistic forms and adds a layer of complexity to the work that becomes an”I Spy” like game for the viewer to unearth the full story behind the art. Like all great forms of art, Walker grabs us on multiple levels with one move. Power like that is not easy replicated.

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Q is for…

QUILTS

Selections from Gee's Bend artisans.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a quilt is worth a thousand stories. The practice of quilting has been an important folk art for African Americans since before slavery ended. These story quilts were a way to tell narrative and record histories and employed weaving and textile techniques many blacks had retained from their African roots. These intricate tapestries were often created for slave owner’s homes. Quilting emerged as a known African American art form in the antebellum era influenced by traditional black art forms including: basket weaving, woodcarving, painting, pottery, and quilting. I find that interesting as all of these techniques are typically used to create everyday objects of common use. It reminds us that there is beauty in the things we see everyday and their very creation has a story to tell.

Harriet Powers Bible Quilt.

Since early quilts were often requested by whites using their own fabrics, the true art is in the way they were put together. Especially in the South, many slave women were trained in textile weaving. This was ironic, considering that in many African countries, weaving was a male dominated field. Much of our history of these practices are only known for biographies and first hand narratives remaining from this history and the skills that were passed down from generation to generation both orally and in the transfer of techniques. One of the few examples from this period that is Harriet Power’s Bible Quilt which can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institute. Powers was born into slavery in Georgia, and has been acknowledged for creating the best examples of 19th century quilting. Power’s style was applique and included panels depicting scenes that tell a story.  Some historians also believe slaves hid messages in quilt blocks to support the underground railroad.  Thus these symbols and stories had a shared message and served as a means of communication.

Quilt that employs the "string quilt" method using a variety of fabrics.

After Emancipation, many free black women found domestic work. Here the practice of quilting continued for practical reasons to create fabric coverings and reuse and re-purpose scraps around the house from garments, feed bags, and other textiles. This practice was called “string quilts” with various strips of fabrics being sewn together to make an intricate pattern. Few examples of this style remain from the period because they were in heavy use. Another technique for quilting is the pine burr quilt. In this method, overlapping triangles are used to create a 3D effect in a radiating pattern. This style was considered to be masterpiece style like applique quilts.

The women of Gee's Bend hard at work.

The Great Migration opened up career opportunities and quilting became more of a recreational activity for black women, especially in retirement. It became an activity that was celebrated in social organizations, church groups, and senior centers. This shift from necessity to pleasure has fostered in a new found love for the art form. Looking at the Gee’s Bend collective, this group of women quilt for their love of the production of their elaborate art pieces and the preservation of a historical technique. The Gee’s Bend quilters have established a community and organization around their shared passion and have reintroduced the current generation to the beauty of quilting.

Recent trends have included the deliberate inclusion of African imagery, fabrics, and influences to reference back to our ancestry. There is much debate over whether or not there is a unique style to African American quilting that is similar or stems from textile patterns and styles from Africa. This theory becomes difficult to prove as there are few surviving examples of the work. Also, since quilting techniques were often shared across races in the South, it is not easy to determine the race of a quilter if their piece is found. Still the tradition remains in modern times as a nostalgic reminder of our past. Modern black artists like Charlotte Lewis, Erika Rae Allen, Chris Clark, Willie Birch, Donnette Cooper, Roland Freeman, and Faith Ringgold have all been influenced in their own work by the tradition of quilting and the techniques it employs.

Praise by Chris Clark.

Regardless, quilting still represents a period of our history as blacks and physical creations that came of this practice that reflect a level of craftsmanship and artistry that can be traced back to our early history in America. What I see most visible from the art of quilting is a physical collage that tells a story not just in its pattern and image but in the craft used in its production. I see the results of its strong influence daily in my travels through black neighborhoods, from accessories and garments that use quilted patterns and African fabrics to the intricate murals and panels we paint on buildings and walls. I am sure the art of quilting will be something we still talk about years from now, because ingrained in black culture is the creative practice of finding new and artistic ways to share our stories with the world.

Images from Faith Ringgold's Tar Baby.

 


O is for…

EDDIE OPARA

In 2010, the design world celebrated the addition of Eddie Opara as a partner at Pentgram, the worlds largest design consulting firm. Spanning three countries across four offices, the company literally design everything. Even more impressive is that Opara is the only partner of African descent at the prestigious design company. Opara was born in London and studied graphic design at the London College of Printing, going on to get his MFA from Yale University.

Logo Opara designed for SORG.

Opara started his career at Art Technology Group (ATG), moving to Imaginary Forces, and eventually went on to head his own studio, The Map Office. His specialties are the design of brand identities, publications, exhibitions, user interfaces, environments, software, and installations. Opara employs many different types of media in his creations. Starting out more focused on print design, Opara learned web design, programming, and animation, expanding his breadth of work.

Example of publciation Opara designed.

Since joining the legend-wait for it-dary, Pentagram, Opara was instrumental in making their website more accessible and showcasing the firm’s work. It uses a content management system, MIG, designed by Opara himself that is customizable. The system is intricate, allowing visitors to sort out projects by a number of parameters to get the results they desire. This is just one small example of how his creative genius affects everyday interactions.

Screenshot of MIG in action.

One word many design publications have associated with Opara’s work is wizard. His manner of bringing mediums together to create multi-faceted readings in all of his projects. This is evident in one of MAP’s most well known projects, STEALTH, which was done for the Studio Museum of Harlem. The project had many layers, both cultural and visual. Shaped like a stealth bomber plane, the project makes reference to a line from Ralph Waldo Ellison’s, Invisible Man, alluding to the way African-Americans are treated in American society. At the same time, the aircraft it is based on is a paradox, expected to operate invisibly, but has such a well designed and eye capturing shape you want to watch it. Stealth is made out of paper, and can fold out to be a wall covering, but is viewed as an optical illusion. The text that wraps its surface is best read from far away, but becomes muddled up close, and once unfolded the patterns leads the eyes to believe the wall is moving. This one project shows the complex level of thought Opara pays to all his work.

Opara's Stealth project in its many forms.

His other work is just as impressive, so be sure to continue to check Pentagram’s website (content changes daily) to see Opara’s other magic. With the design field in an ever state of flux, only the future knows what Eddie Opara will do next.

 

 

 


I is for…

I HAVE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP (1977)

Any visitor to downtown Memphis is most likely familiar with this sculptural tribute to MLK. I Have Been to the Mountaintop was completed in 1977 by renown sculptor Richard Hunt. Hunt is famous for his unique public art works often created from steel. The piece commemorates the famous speech in the heart of the city where King’s life ended. It was Hunts second public art commission and one of his first major pieces using steel, the material that he eventually became so well know for shaping.

Hunt hard at work in his Chicago studio.

Hunt started his career in his hometown of Chicago, where many of his sculptures are featured. He attended the prestigious School of the Art Institute and quickly gained notoriety as an artist with his first show in New York City at the age of 23, in 1958. Hunt won an award that allowed him to tour Europe and study the masters, which was an incredible opportunity for a young black man from the South Side of Chicago. His technique was very influenced by nature, both from his travels and his college job in a zoology lab.

Hunt's sketch inspiring the sculpture.

Large public outdoor pieces later became what Hunt was most known for, with his self expression often defining a public message. His pieces are a reflection and draw their inspiration from the black experience in America, with I Have Been to the Mountaintop being one of his more famous works. A unique aspect of Hunt’s work is the juxtaposition of his organic methods of creation and the forms he shapes with the industrial associations of his tools. The steel he uses becomes more than a material but it treatment indicative of his artistic process.

His sculptures must be viewed in the 360 degrees to get the full effect. When I see I Have Been to the Mountaintop, emotions of strength and pride are evoked within me. The whole piece reminds me of a figure looking up to the sky, head held high. The mass has a weight that asserts its power and strength, indicative of King’s message and legacy. The curved legs are inviting, pulling one’s eye up the ‘mountain’ and drawing you into its climb. The triangular ‘wings’ create a path and resemble a mountain peak, but also conjure images of wings. This idea of flight is recurring in black mythology, often representing ideas of freedom and transcendence. There also appear to be many figures side by side atop the mountain, walking together, towards a common goal. These are all images and ideas that reinforce that great speech. Hunt’s piece manages to take his personal style and transmit a message that is timeless through art.

Check this website to get 360 views of the sculpture and see for yourself!


G is for…

BILLY GRAHAM

Page from Graham's Vampirella comic.

Usually when one hears of blacks in comics, Storm, the Nubian member of the famous X- Men series or Aaron McGruder immediately come to mind. What most people don’t know is that there were creative black minds working behind the scenes for years. Billy Graham was one of these influential artists, whose characters first became popular in the 1960s.

Graham was working at Warren comics where he spent some time as art director and contributed to the risque horror series, Vampirella. He was also picked up on some strips at EERIE magazine. In the early 70s, Graham moved to Marvel Comics, where he helped create the character Luke Cage. During his tenure at Marvel, he also worked with Don McGregor on a volume in the Black Panther series, Jungle Action, one of the most read appearances of the character ever.. One story line, Panther’s Rage is heralded by many comic aficionados as the best representation of that character ever. For the comic illiterate, Black Panther was the first black superhero that was conceptualized by someone within the Diaspora.

Black Panther in 1975.

In the 1980s he worked with McGregor again in the conceptualization of the Sabre comic at Eclipse Comics, and worked on many Marvel magazine ventures and comic guides. His artwork is often appreciated for the realistic features in his characters proportions and figures and detail in relaying their facial expression. The rough quality of his lines create a dynamic movement on the page and a raw feel that is not easily rendered. After his successful career, Graham passed in 1999, but his characters and images will forever live on.

Jungle Action illustrated by Billy Graham.


F is for…

1995

The Furture

FUTURA (2000)


E is for…

ERNIE BARNES.

Growing up, I thought every house in America had an Ernie Barnes painting, because everyone I knew had a print in their living room. My wall featured The Graduate and everyday I looked at the proud black figure walking tall, diploma in hand. Its not hard to tell how images like this shape a person. What I still love most about that painting is the dynamism, you feel like the subject was caught mid action. That was one of Ernie Barnes’ strengths.

Seeing this everyday leads to high expectations.

For those who may not know his name, you definitely know his art. His most ubiquitous image is the painting Sugar Shack which was featured in the opening credits for Good Times and was reinterpreted for a Marvin Gaye album cover. The picture has become a requisite example of old school celebrations and good times. For Barnes the image captures his innocence lost at his first dance experience. The rhythmic feel of the art transmits the viewer to that moment, losing one in the feel of the moment.

Doesn't it make you want to get on your feet!

Barnes’ has been honored by many art critics as ushering in the neo-mannerist style. harking his style back to the master Michelangelo for the way he depicts his subjects. Some of Barnes’ signature techniques can be found throughout his portfolio. One recurring theme is the closed eyes of his subject. Quotes from Barnes show that this was to represent how we are blinded by humanity and not actually seeing one another. Another, was his unique framing style of raw, aging, fencing wood in homage to his father.

Barnes’ captured everyday moments in vibrant color.

Inspired by his previous athletic career, all his figures often appear with elongated limbs to convey their motion. He honed this technique drawing during his downtime on the sidelines as a professional football player. This also influenced many sports centered paintings. Over his career, Barnes was named the official artist for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in 1984, he was commissioned to do a piece for the LA Lakers Championship in 1987, and produced the 50 year commemoration of the NBA with the piece, The Dream Unfolds.

As an athlete, Barnes' captured the emotion of the game.

The Dream Unfolds commissioned for the NBA.

In his later years, Barnes used his art to explore aspects of black culture and humanity drawing inspiration from the LA Race Riots and 9/11. He also completed a mural for performer, Kanye West, entitled A Life Restored. Upon his death in 2009, Barnes was working on an exhibition which his estate is still working on showcasing.

A Life Restored was painting on the ceiling in West's home.