Cultural Contributions to Memphis Art Galleries

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – As we continue our tribute to Black History Month, we take a look at art, especially African-American artwork at two of this city’s top galleries, many of which have had to maneuver behind closed doors in their own country.

Now more doors are opening for today’s Black American artists.

The Dixon Gallery & Gardens off Park Avenue in East Memphis was once the private residence of Hugo and Margaret Dixon, who donated the entire 17 acres and their collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art to Julie Pierotti , Dixon’s curator Martha R. Robinson.

“As we’re talking about French art, you know in the period, really from 1850 to about World War II, Paris is the center of the art world, and a lot of American artists, including black American artists, went to Paris if they could,” she explained.

There are two still lifes in the Dixon residence, Bowl of Cherries and Sunflowers, by African-American artist Charles Ethan Porter, who she says “was really the first black American artist to go to Paris who studied art and really became a painter.”

Pierotti said Porter traveled to Paris armed with a letter of recommendation from writer Mark Twain and, in 1882, immersed himself in the Parisian art world, becoming the only black artist in the world. story to specialize in still life. But upon his return to the United States, the genre was out of fashion, leaving him to die in relative obscurity with only about nine of his 54 works documented in museums.

Despite Porter’s relative obscurity at the end of his career, he still inspired other black American artists to try Paris, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 and remained there throughout a highly successful career. His work was internationally recognized and, being the son of a minister, was primarily religious in nature. One of these paintings, “View of Siena”, is also exhibited at the Dixon Gallery.

According to Pierotti, Tanner was “really the first black American painter to succeed in Paris”. His work was shown at the Salon, as Pierotti called the place to show his work at the time.

William Edouard Scott, a mural portrait painter and illustrator, followed Tanner to Paris in 1909, becoming Tanner’s mentee while also training in Parisian art schools.

“And then he goes back to the States and does this French technique of painting, you know, a little canvas painted on the spot, painted very quickly to capture the light and the landscape at the moment,” Pierotti described, showing the Scott painting of Dixon from a vineyard.

Harlem Renaissance sculptor and educator Augusta Savage also studied for a time in Paris, but not before a scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris was canceled in 1923 once the admissions committee realized she was a black woman. But in 1929, his sculpture entitled “Gamin”, which is also the first piece added to Dixon’s collection, won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to travel and study in France.

“The Julius Rosenwald Fund was a very powerful source of funding for black American painters to go out and explore the United States or explore Europe,” Pierotti said.

Painter and master printmaker Eldzier Cortor’s Rosenwald Fellowship enabled him to study the Gullah community in Georgia and South Carolina in the 1940s. Cortor favored black female nudes, such as the one lent to the Dixon, and said that ” the black woman represents the black race”.

Pierotti said he was studying surrealism.

“A lot of American and European painters do this after the destruction of World War II,” she added.

Charles White was another Rosenwald Fellow. He described his own work as “images of dignity”, as “Our land”, which was painted in 1951 and also hangs in the Dixon. Pierotti described the painting of a black woman holding a pitchfork as the white version of “American Gothic”.

“It was a big part of the contribution of early black artists in the civil rights movement to promoting positivity in the representation of the black community,” Pierottis said.

At the Brooks Museum of Art in downtown Memphis’ Overton Park, the world’s largest tri-state art museum, “The Art of the African Diaspora” includes both abstract and figurative art which, according to Heather Nickels, Joyce P. Blackmon Curatorial Fellow in African American Art, attempts to “connect a kind of contemporary African American art with so many kinds of roots on the African continent “.

The Joyce P. Blackmon Conservation Fellowship was established at Brooks in 2018.

“It was seen as sort of a priority to make sure the museum had a scholarship that would support an emerging color curator. And so, hopefully, with posts like this and the priorities set by the museum to focus and showcase the aspects and accomplishments of black artists,” Nickels explained.

There is the “Essense of Memphis” mural by Nigerian American artist ViKtor Ekpuk which includes a depiction of the Mississippi River, guitars, musical notes and cotton bowls, and the phrase “I Am A Man” , which was the slogan of the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike. A breathtaking piece by Pittsburg-based Vanessa German, who addresses hate and expresses hope with it, is one of the pieces featured in the ‘diaspora’ exhibition on the top floor of the museum.

“It’s made up of many, many different components and sequins, but also found materials,” Nickels described, while Memphian Luther Hampton’s wood carvings put a modern spin on early 20th-century African art.

One of the show’s other most monumental pieces is “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Wept”. which is a series of photographs by Carie May Weems,” according to Nickels.

Weems combined ancient daguerreotypes of slaves from the American South with text to describe how slaveholders might have labeled them.

Black American artwork is also on display in Brook’s Contemporary Gallery, including a massive painting of Tupelo, Mississippi, born Sam Gilliam, who was associated with a group of Washington, DC-area artists called the Washington Color School which developed a form of abstract art from color. field painting in the 1950s and 1960s.

Also on display are two pieces by Nashville-born folk sculptor William Edminson, who used found limestone to craft his masterpieces.

“He was the first black artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA,” Nickels added.

There is also a piece by Purvis Young, a self-taught artist born in Miami, Florida, who also often used found objects as well as collages and paintings and the experience of African Americans in the South.

There is an amazing sculpture made entirely of tires, which was created by internationally renowned American sculptor Chakaia Booker, known for her monumental and abstract creations from recycled tires and stainless steel.

Nickels argues that most of the African American artists in the Dixon collections have a common thread, in addition to their race.

“I think the guiding line with a lot of black artists is a lot of finding things in our lives that already exist, whether it’s wood, limestone, tires,” she explained.

For centuries, African-American artists, despite their struggles for social and civil rights, have been able to influence the visual culture of the United States and Europe. But as Nickels described it, “For the most part, historically and continuously, they haven’t really been recognized. Museums have a lot of work to do to make sure our collections represent America.

But there is no doubt that their creativity, activism and talent have and will continue to rise above adversity. Most of the paintings described in this history of Dixon Gardens and Gallery are part of the museum’s permanent collection, but two of them are on loan and will only be on display for a short time.

As for the Brooks, “African Diaspora Art” has been in place since November, and the museum tends to rotate exhibits every four to six months.

For more information on the Brooks Museum, click here. The link for the Dixon is here.

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Mildred D. Field