Knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, the Trenton City Museum staff at Ellarslie has taken the idea and incorporated it in a juried exhibition “ . . . of Color: The African American Experience.” It is one part of a long list of summer activities being held in conjunction with the African American Cultural Festival set for Saturday, August 15, in Trenton’s Cadwalader Park.
The exhibit includes a wide range of works, viewpoints, and experiences drawn from the artists who — in addition to submitting artwork — used words to write about the African American experience. As curator Carolyn Stetson says, “The artists don’t have to be African American to enter, but the theme of the work has to be the African American experience, and each artist was asked to write statements to go along with each work. It contributes to the exhibit because it brings up some interesting themes. Several artists mention feeling invisible at some point in their lives or having difficulty with their identity while others are more universal having to do with wisdom and dignity.”
While the exhibition includes 48 works by 27 artists from the tri-state region, Stetson says she is pleased that a lot of new artists — including Trenton artists who had never showed work at Ellarslie before — were selected for an exhibit where deep and personal feeling are conveyed through words and work.
Donna Carcaci Rhodes, director of the Trenton Museum Society, speaks about the effect of the exhibition. “I think the impact, I hope, will be one of connection to people. It’s not unusual for us to have these kinds of shows and a lot of these artists are returning artists, but I’m hoping that people will feel that they can come in and maybe see some of their favorite artists, see emerging artists, and feel they can walk into the museum and find it comfortable and find it entertaining and find it interesting. That’s the whole idea behind what I like to do, that there’s something there that everyone connects to.”
She says she is taken by the work of many of the emerging artists selected for the show and found it exciting to see what work was chosen.
Exhibiting Trenton artist Siri Om Singh exemplifies the exhibition’s spirit when he describes his work, “Shaman Mystic”:
“Growing up a man of color in America created experiences of anger, loss of identity, and being marginalized. This led me to a search for mystical healing within myself. Taking a stand for my own personal power was a magical, healing experience.”
Nationally recognized artist Wendell Brooks, professor emeritus at the College of New Jersey, served as juror for the exhibit.
“There are very good artists, a very good show, but what is really good are the statements that the people wrote about the work. It makes an extremely interesting show. I was surprised that there were so many black artists working,” says Brooks.
Brooks has a personal and experiential understanding of the theme. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, the printmaker explored the African American experience and cultivated an urging for black Americans to take charge of their own representation.
Brooks’ life is an American history lesson. He was the son of a high school principal and an elementary school teacher in the small town of Aliceville, Alabama, and the great-great grandson of a former slave. Two generations from slavery, Brooks’ father had graduated from Alabama State, a traditionally black college, and had started the school at which he served as principal. “My dad was a hustler,” Brooks recalls. “He had farms and hired people, did some speaking, taught at our junior college. He was real go-getter.”
Brooks says those family actions contributed to the way that he would later “turn out.” “I had a lot of energy that had to be channeled somewhere, so I channeled it into exercise and art. These two things were more or less my salvation. I probably would have self-destructed had it not been for that.”
He credits all of his success on his art and drive, and given the racial attitudes of the times, his art gave him entree into higher education. It also was the vessel for him to channel the rage he felt as a black man in a segregated society. As his reputation as an artist grew, so did his stature.
While Brooks acknowledges racism as a source for a lot of his anger, he says creating art from those — and other — experiences gave him a lifeline. “I was always a loner. When I was a boy I was always getting into a lot of trouble fighting with other kids. The art would calm me down. I could get involved in the art, so my parents were happy. You could say I was born an artist in a sense because I had the spirit and the energy. I didn’t have a great talent.”
The years that followed have proven that Brooks was more than talented. His successes bear that out, and his prints are in the permanent collection at the Library of Congress and the National Collection of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian Institution, among others.
A longtime resident of Ewing Township, Brooks — who holds a BA in art education and a MFA in printmaking from Indiana University — retired from the College of New Jersey eight years ago after a teaching career that spanned nearly 40 years. The college holds some 60 works that he donated before he left.
While he no longer creates art, Brooks is satisfied with leaving all of that behind him. He has no regrets about his career. However, he says, there was a price to be paid with the devotion to his art at the expense of marriage and family. Now, he says, he devotes more time to staying mentally and physically healthy and pursuing a more spiritual life.
Running concurrently at Ellarslie is the exhibition “On their Walls: Area African American Collectors and their African American Art.” It showcases works of art by a select group of African American artists collected by four local African American women.
Artist Kali McMillan guided the project. “I was approached by the museum to curate an exhibition to run concurrently with the African American Pride Festival in the park. I know several women in the area with collections of African American art. I wanted to create a show to showcase the collections in the area and highlight African American experience and art. I chose from a diverse and eclectic mix of work. While a lot of the artists are from New Jersey, not all are,” says McMillan, whose work is also in the juried exhibition.
McMillan, formerly of West Windsor and known to the museum, now lives in Cincinnati, where she works as a cataloger at an estate auction house. She received her BA in art and art history from Colgate University and earned her MA in art history from the University of Glasgow: Christie’s Education, London. As a photographer, McMillan has exhibited work both in the U.S. and abroad. She was selected as an emerging photographer at Milk Underground Gallery NYC in the fall of 2011.
“This exhibition is not only an assortment of fantastic works held in private collections created by a wide range of African American artists, but it visually translates the role of ritual and tradition in the African American experience and shows how artists use their lives and stories to convey these multi-generational values,” says McMillan.
The exhibition includes pieces collected by New Jersey resident Diana Tyson, who also fosters the development of emerging female African artists, including Mercy Moyo. Asked why she collects art, Tyson says, “My collection reflects my life: experiences that I have had, social commentary, and flights of fantasy inspired by abstract works.”
The highlight of the show is a group of five original serigraphs by Romare Bearden from his Prevalence of a Ritual portfolio. Bearden was one of the first African Americans to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern art in New York City. His work visualized the African American experience: ritual and faith.
Other artists in the exhibition are Ann Tanksley, Tom Malloy, Cassandra Gittens, Richard Mayhew, Louis Delsarte, Alonzo Adams, Frank Morrison, Mikalene Thomas, Janet Taylor Pickett, Sandford Biggers, Charlie Palmer, Dean Mitchell, and Ellen Powell Tiberino.
McMillan concludes: “This exhibition is another way to experience and celebrate African American experience, and I hope that the viewers take away an understanding and appreciation for the work and the practice.”
... of Color: The African American Experience, through Sunday, August 30. Gallery talk Sunday, August 9, at 2 p.m.
On Their Walls: Area African American Collectors and Their African American Art, through Sunday, September 13. Gallery talk Sunday, July 26, 2 p.m.
The exhibits are displayed in conjunction with the Trenton African American Cultural Festival, Saturday, August 15.
Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park. Tuesdays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. Free. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.