The exhibition “African American Images 1971” is reconstituted by the Delaware Art Museum in a mea culpa museum

The exhibition “African American Images 1971” is reconstituted by the Delaware Art Museum in a mea culpa museum

“To write about the black presence at the Delaware Art Museum is to recall the absence of curators, exhibits and artists,” says art historian and artist Simone Austin in the catalog of the reenactment of the exhibition “African-American Images 1971”. ,’ now in the Delaware Museum. Our contributor Susan Isaacs tells the story of the current exhibit and its historic predecessor, saying, “The exhibit is very important. It is a museum mea culpa and is not only timely as it is the 50th anniversary of the original exhibition, but also represents an attempt to reverse the role museums have played in ignoring artists black. And it’s just a damn good show. Well worth a trip to Wilmington.” See the show before it closes on January 23, 2022.

When Delaware Art Museum Curator of Contemporary Art Margaret Winslow was researching the 2015 exhibit Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970–1990, she came across a checklist for a 1971 exhibition of works by African American artists at the Wilmington (DE) National Guard Armory (now St. Anthony’s Community Center). Not being from Delaware, and not even born at the time of the 1971 broadcast, Winslow was unaware of this. African American Pictures 1971 was well attended, and many regional politicians and prominent citizens were at the opening reception. It was supported in part by a grant from the new (1969) Delaware State Arts Council.

The curator of this original exhibit, Percy Ricks, (1938-2008) dedicated it to the memory of his Howard University teacher and mentor, James A. Porter (1905-1970), artist and art historian renamed. Ricks was an artist and teacher and one of the founders of Aesthetic Dynamics, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the arts presence in Wilmington. After attending Howard University, Ricks earned advanced degrees from Columbia and Temple universities. In 1948, he became the first full-time black art teacher to be hired in Wilmington Public Schools. At the time of African American images exhibition, he was a well-established artist and teacher with many connections to black artists across the country, but especially those on the East Coast, in part through his connections to Howard University.

Ernest Crichlow, “Waiting,” 1968, Lithograph, composition: 12 × 11 1/2 inches, sheet: 18 1/2 × 13 3/4 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Acquisition Fund, 2019. © Estate of Ernest Crichlow. Photo courtesy of Delaware Art Museum.

Over 130 works of art were included in the original exhibition. Curator Winslow recognized many names on the checklist, including Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Barkley Hendricks, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, James A. Porter, Faith Ringgold, Alma Thomas, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. The exhibition included works by emerging artists as well as the luminaries mentioned above. One of Ricks’ goals was to demonstrate the breadth of talent among African American artists, countering the misconception that there were no or very few black artists making contemporary art.

Historically, 1971 marks an important moment for Wilmington. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and after rioting and looting the National Guard was called in and occupied the city for nine months. The negative result of this occupation reverberated for years. The show was first offered at the Delaware Art Center, soon to be renamed the Delaware Art Museum, but management did not respond. The museum was not used to reaching out to the black community, or as historian and artist Simone Austin puts it, “to write about the black presence at the Delaware Art Museum is to recall the absence of curators , exhibitions and artists”. * This situation, until recently, was unfortunately typical of many museums across the United States.

Winslow, approached Dr. Newton, whom she had consulted for the “Dream Streets” exhibit, to discuss the possibility of recreating the Percy Ricks exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum to recognize and document it for the occasion. of his 50th birthday. **An advisory committee of knowledgeable people including academics and community leaders was formed, and the result is the current exhibit with an accompanying catalog. The 2021 Percy Ricks Exhibit is part of a concerted effort by the city-based DAM to reach and connect with Wilmington’s black community.***

The scope and scale of the restoration project was enormous. How do you find all the art that was on display in the 1971 presentation? Winslow recalls that they were able to immediately identify and locate examples of 66 of the artists. **** Also, a number of African American art collections have come up for sale over the past 3-4 years which has helped find the art. They couldn’t find all of the objects on the original checklist, but the current exhibit includes pieces comparable in style and date so most of the artists from the 1971 exhibit are represented, with 100 exhibited works. Lenders of the DAM re-enactment vary from private collectors to museums. The result is a stunning exhibition that presents a view of modernism across many different styles, subjects and techniques from an important period in the development of contemporary art.

A diversity of approaches were employed by artists, from those who focused on African sources, to those who explored political and sociological issues, to those who were accomplished in formal abstraction. The ideas that inspired the artists can be traced in part to two Howard University professors, philosopher and arts proponent Alain Locke and Ricks mentor James A. Porter. The two esteemed professors did not always agree on the subjects and styles of black artists, but their ideas reverberated well into the 1970s.***** In 1925, Locke published The New Negro to which he contributed five essays, including “The New Negro” and “The Legacy of Ancestral Arts”. He encouraged looking to African art and black culture for inspiration. Porter published his influential book, modern negro art, in 1943, in which he establishes African-American artists in the context of American art. Ricks believed in a black aesthetic with roots “rooted in the rich soil of the cradle of civilization”.******

Gestural abstract painting with an orange background and four faces painted in different colors including blue, brown and white.
Humbert Howard, Black Orpheus, 1969, Oil and collage on Masonite™, 49 3/4 × 40 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Dr. John E. and Carol Hunt, 2009, © Howard Heartsfield Gallery. Photo courtesy of Delaware Art Museum.

Hubert Howard’s “Black Orpheus” features a classic subject, the Greek god of music and poetry, represented here by several powerful dark-skinned figures. The highly saturated expressive color and abstract forms demonstrate Howard’s knowledge of modernism; Matisse’s impact on artists in Philadelphia, where Howard lived, was likely through the Barnes Foundation. Many Philadelphia artists have learned from its collection which includes works by Seurat, Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, and other important modernists. African sculptures are also exhibited there.

New York artist Hale Woodruff is best known for his abstract expressionist paintings that often reference African arts and culture. In “Celestial Gate”, he suggests the carved wooden doors of the Dogon people of West Africa. His dramatic image, “Ancestral Memory”, although abstract, includes a mask-like image of a face. Included was one of Sam Gilliam’s draped abstract canvases, represented here by an untitled 1971 work by the artist. Another painter working abstractly was Alma Thomas, who had roots in Wilmington, having taught there before attending Howard University. The DAM shows the same painting she had included in the 1971 exhibit, which is now owned by the Smithsonian Museum of African American Museum of History and Culture.

In addition to Thomas, Ricks has featured the work of other women well known today, including: Lois Mailou Jones, Faith Ringgold and Samella Lewis. Most people recognize Ringgold’s textile paintings, but she painted in oil on canvas before moving on to her famous quilts. Jones taught Howard from 1930 to 1977, and Lewis is a scholar and curator as well as a practicing artist, publishing a major art history textbook, Art: African American in 1978.

“Waiting”, a lithograph by Ernest Crichlow is a representative image of a young black girl behind a barbed wire fence. Crichlow often depicted images about racism. He was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and in 1969, just two years before the Wilmington Exhibition, he co-founded a gallery in New York, NY with Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, whose works were also included in the 1971 exhibition. Lewis’ abstract expressionist images sometimes contain figures or other signifiers that refer to black life. Bearden, who is best known for his collages, became Ricks’ advisor for the exhibit.

Without being able to recreate the original exhibit exactly, African American Pictures 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks is close enough to honor the vision and dedication of Percy Ricks. The show is very important. It is a museum mea culpa and is not only timely as it is the 50th anniversary of the original exhibition, but also represents an attempt to reverse the role museums have played in ignoring artists black. And it’s just a damn good show. Well worth a trip to Wilmington.

“Afro-American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks,” on view at the Delaware Art Museum January 23, 2022. A collaboration between Aesthetics Dynamics, Inc. and the Delaware Art Museum. Catalog available here.

Colorful, abstractly painted fabric draped in the air in the corner of a gallery, suspended from four points with fishing line.
Sam Gilliam, Untitled, c. 1971, acrylic on draped cotton canvas, 116 x 162 inches. Clark University Atlanta Museum of Art. Photo by James Plummer.


*Simone Austin, “The African-American Presence at the Delaware Art Museum”, in African American Pictures 1971: Percy Ricksexhibition catalog, The Delaware Art Museum, 2021, 29.

** Author’s Zoom interview with Margaret Winslow, December 16, 2021.

*** Wilmington, Delaware’s total population as of 2021 is just under 70,000, with Blacks or African Americans making up 58.26% of the city’s makeup.

**** Author’s Zoom interview with Margaret Winslow, December 16, 2021.

*****Rizvana Bradley, Margo Natalie Crawford, John McCluskey and Charles Henry Rowell, “James A. Porter and Alain Locke on Race, Culture and the Making of Art: A Panel Discussion” Callaloo. 39, no. 5 (2018): 1171.

******Percy Ricks, “The Black Esthetic”, 1976, essay from Percy Ricks’ files quoted in Dr. James Newton, “Percy Eugene Ricks: Memories, Musings, Mentorship”, in African American Pictures 1971: Percy Ricks56.

Mildred D. Field