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Prominence and Complexity: Major exhibit of post-war African American art arrives at SAM

Screenshot 2016-10-31 10.33.33To great fanfare, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened recently in Washington, D.C., the newest member of the Smithsonian Institution.

Therefore, it seems like perfect timing that the Susquehanna Art Museum is mounting an exhibit of post-war works entitled, “African American Art since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center.” The exhibit opened last month in SAM’s main gallery and continues through Jan. 22.

The exhibit is a potpourri. Forty-two artists are featured, including such established names as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Sam Gilliam, as well as new visionaries like Chakaia Booker, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker, said Dorit Yaron, its co-curator along with Dr. Robert E. Steele.

A variety of media are represented, including paintings, sculpture and mixed media.

The traveling exhibit is part of a large, permanent collection assembled by the David C. Driskell Center, housed at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Focusing on the last six decades, the exhibit is a follow-up to, and was inspired by, another exhibition featured in 1976 at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. “Two Centuries of African American Art: 1750-1950” was curated by Prof. David C. Driskell, for whom the center is named.

“The current exhibition collectively reflects the growing prominence and complexity of the field of African American art over the past 60 years,” said Yaron, who also is deputy director of the Driskell Center.

One of the works included in the exhibit is by Driskell himself. His “Woman in Interior” is a 2008 silkscreen, collage and woodcut.

Currently, the center contains more than 1,500 art works and an archive of some 50,000 items, including Driskell’s correspondence, lecture notes and brochures. In recent years, it has grown substantially, moving to the University of Maryland in 2007 with only 100 works.

For a long time, Yaron continued, African American art was not included in the field of American art in general, and “maybe it represented less than 1 percent of the holdings in the museums that did.” The Driskell Center’s aim is to integrate the story of African American art into the whole of American art.

The overall discounting of African American art began to change in the 1920s, with the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of cultural, social and artistic expression.

“The Renaissance brought about racial awareness of the important art being created by African Americans in the first quarter of the 20th century,” said Driskell, who is both an artist and art historian. “Mainstream institutions began to note the creative work African Americans had been engaged in since the 19th century. Before then, the work of black artists was not widely seen and not appreciated.”

Driskell was one of the people consulted by former President Bill Clinton to help select art for the White House and is a Medal of Honor recipient. He is widely considered the foremost authority in the field of African American art history, said Yaron.

Accompanying the exhibit will be one special event and one special artistic feature.

On Nov. 5, there will be a lecture by Curlee Raven Holton, the executive director and distinguished artist in residence at the Department of Art at the Driskell Center, starting at 6 p.m.

“His presentation will reflect on the work and provide engaging conversation about the collection,” said Alice Anne Schwab, executive director of SAM.

Holton said the SAM exhibit will help tell a more complete story of the contributions of all of its citizens.

“It is a testimonial to that commitment and shared pride that African American artists, in particular, have brought to the American experience,” he said.

As an added attraction to the exhibit, SAM is offering a “Quilted History of African Americans in Dauphin County.”

“In celebration of the 230th anniversary of Dauphin County, the members of the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg created this quilt,” said Schwab.

What would Driskell like people to take away from the exhibit?

“I would like for the visitor to this exhibition to see that African American artists create their work from the same sources as other American artists and that their responses to human conditions and life experiences are what make them artists of note, not the color of their skin,” he said. “Their work helps to make American art more inclusive.”

“African American Art since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center” runs through Jan. 22 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit

Author: Barbara Trainin Blank

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