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Art Review: African-American Artists Made Visible

“For my people everywhere singing their slave songs repeatedly, their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees…”

The text of Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People” is printed on the pages of a large art book, so fine it must be handled with gloves. It is illustrated with lithographs by Elizabeth Catlett, who is still a working artist at age 93. Her graphics, in vivid blue, red, and brown, depict the African-American experience – faces, children playing, a wedding kiss… and a lynching.

Catlett’s lithographs can be seen in the new exhibit, Masterpieces of African-American Art, at the M. Hanks Gallery. Located on Main Street in Santa Monica, M. Hanks has been exhibiting African-American art exclusively for two decades.

The exhibit’s opening night on January 12 was a celebration of the gallery’s 20 years and also was a benefit for the HEArt Project, an organization that brings art education to teenagers in alternative high school programs. Some works by students in the program were featured in the exhibit.

Gallery owner Eric Hanks took time out during the reception to talk with the Mirror about the works in this new show.

“The earliest piece [in the show] was done in 1889 by Grafton Tyler Brown, who is the first black American artist to be active on the West Coast. And it goes right up to the present – we have an artist tonight, Michael Massenburg, who is in his early 40s. So it spans quite a bit – contemporary and historical pieces. There are over 50 pieces altogether and about 30 different artists, [including] a lot of Los Angeles artists.”

Tyler Brown’s painting is a landscape, “Grand Canyon and Falls From Hayden Point,” that seems, because of its subject matter, conventional compared to other works in the show.

Archibald J. Motley’s “Between Acts” audaciously depicts a dressing room at what might be a burlesque theatre, where naked women (strippers?) are grooming themselves while a man with a hat and cane (a comic or dancer) stands in the doorway, his back turned. Motley, who worked in Chicago in the 1930s, was known for his scenes of African-American life.

Meta Warwick Fuller, an East Coast artist who also worked in the 1930s, created sculptures in bronze. The M. Hanks show features her sculpture “Water Boy,” a small statue of a boy, who, although he bears a jar of water, projects a dignity in his expression and bearing.

Palmer Hayden’s “Schoolchild with Cat,” a 1966 oil painting, gives us a delightful little girl, whose radiant smile and wise eyes, set in a slightly large head, makes her seem older and even a bit sensual.

The aforementioned Michael Massenburg is one of the most political artists in the show, with works like “LAPB 2006,” a mixed-media collage that combines pictures of black activists and headlines from the Black Panther newspaper.

Other renowned artists in the Hanks exhibit include Walter Williams, William Pajaud, Phoebe Beasley, Romare Bearden, William E. Artis, and Amiri Baraka, (yes, the writer).

Many of these names may not be as recognizable to the average person as the white European and American artists who still dominate museum exhibits. Hanks acknowledges that African-Americans have struggled for visibility in the art world. “Now it’s changing a bit. There have been shows organized and originating from big museums and that’s helped to make people aware.” It was to this end that Hanks opened his gallery, and the catalogue for the new show is filled with testimonials from artists and other art lovers who appreciate the dedication he has shown.

The exhibit opens to the public on January 17 and will run through March 29.

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