Making A Statement

African American Art from the MFAH’s Collection

The works on view in a museum at any given time are usually a fraction of what the museum has in its holdings. The other tens of thousands of objects in a museum’s collection offer curators the challenge of creating interesting, new exhibits.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is very much familiar with the trend of thematic shows and “Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection” highlights works by African American artists from the 20th century through today. Rather than present just two-dimensional works, or show only contemporary works, the 47 works by 37 artists span from the early 1930s through the tumultuous times of the Civil Rights movement through art produced in contemporary times. However, all the works present perspectives of being black in America during the past 80 years.

The earliest works in the exhibition were collected not just because they were ahead of their time, but also because of the institutional barriers that African American artists broke down in the production of their art.

"I Am A Man" by Ernest C. Withers

“I Am A Man” by Ernest C. Withers

One early work is a bronze sculpture of a Senegalese male cabaret dancer, “Feral Benga” (1935), by Richmond Barthé. Like France’s Auguste Rodin, Barthé’s technique highlights the sinuousness of the dancer’s muscles, providing a breath of movement to the work. An important artist from the Harlem Renaissance, the sculptor captures the fascination with exoticism in the entertainment industry in the 1930s.

Many of the photographs from the 1950s document segregation and the Civil Rights era — some even featuring the prominent figures of the movement.

"Condition Report" by Glenn Ligon

“Condition Report” by Glenn Ligon

One such photo, “First Desegregated Bus Ride: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Montgomery, Alabama” (1956) by Ernest C. Withers, shows a bus filled with both black and white passengers. The silence of the image speaks volumes of the tension and liberation that occupies this moment when African Americans are allowed to freely take their seat on the bus without yielding to white passengers. Another Ernest C. Withers work, from 1968, captures workers on strike holding up a sign simply stating, “I Am A Man’ — a peaceful protest summarizing the motivations behind the nonviolent movement.

“I Am A Man” is explored again by contemporary artist Glenn Ligon in his work, “Condition Report” (2000). The diptych replicates the typeface and style of the aforementioned protest poster. The left image is an inkjet, while the repeated screen printed image on the right features notations of a condition report by a conservationist. The conservationist circled and drew attention to areas of the protest poster that are in need of restoration.

"Soundsuit" by Nick Cave

“Soundsuit” by Nick Cave

The piece questions the result of the Civil Rights movement and how many of the founding ideas are still relevant or in need of “restoration” today. Ligon’s exploration of text through his work allows him to explore how the African American experience has been woven into previously published works, to reveal how one understands American society through its cultural production.

MFAH also owns one of Nick Cave’s famous “Soundsuits.” It is placed at the end of the exhibition. This powerful piece stands erect, as if an actual figure is occupying the work, demanding spectators to recognize its presence. The larger-than-life suit is made from rugs found at thrift stores and holds true to Cave’s vision of having his suits attract attention wherever they are seen — one cannot ignore these giant beings.

Closing the show with this piece, MFAH is declaring to its visitors not only the significance of African American works of the past, but also the bright and hopeful future of works to come.

The show is on view through April 24.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is located at 1001 Bissonnet in Houston.

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By Caitlin Duerler

ISSUE staff writer

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