To See the UNseen: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection and the Northeast Ohio Response
“My images are my proof that I exist in a world without accurate depictions….I am tired of people from outside of Black environments communicating our stories. Their perceptions are off. This is why my work is so important.” — Donald Black Jr., photographer, whose work is including in seenUNseen
SeenUNseen is a large survey of work by African American artists currently on view at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and the Sculpture Center. What started as a planned exhibition of works from the renowned Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art, blossomed into a much larger show including works by regional artists alongside the prestigious works from the Atlanta collectors. 75 works by 32 Northeast Ohio artists were chosen, with the Davis collection in mind as much as possible, so the regional artists could participate in a larger artistic conversation – and benefit from hanging alongside works of great art historical significance such as pieces by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White. Almost overwhelming in size, seenUNseen includes over a hundred works in sum, arranged across the campus of the two institutions.
Kerry Davis worked for 30 years as a postman delivering mail in downtown Atlanta. But despite these modest means, together with his wife C. Betty Davis, the couple became enthusiastic art collectors. They strongly believed in the importance of gathering and preserving the legacy of African American artists for the ages, following in the footsteps of prestigious collectors like Arthur Schomburg, James Herring, Alonzo Aden, Lillian Evans Tibbs, and many, many others. As Davis states in the preface to the excellent catalogue of the exhibition, “preserving and sharing cultural memories associated with the various works of African American art in the collection has been the basis of a rich and joyful journey.” And it shows.
The 39 works on view from their personal collection are spread around the three gallery spaces, interspersed between the 75 works by local artists in a manner one could only describe as haphazard. And while I don’t mean haphazard in any sort of negative way, I will admit that the range of media, subject matter, and aesthetic varies greatly. But one thing that stood out is the large amount of portraiture and figural work. When it comes to the representation and depiction of African Americans, photographer Donald Black Jr., who is known for his striking black and white photographs, perhaps summed it up best in his artist statement in the catalogue:
“My images are representations of the internal and external conversations I hold. I’m making a conscious effort to photograph black people in a way that also captures how I see myself. When I show images of people that live and experience the world like me, I’m not reproducing images that are perpetuating the lies surrounding us. Ultimately, I’m communicating truths that are hidden from America’s eyes about the world I’m a part of.”
Like the title of the exhibition hints at, the work of African American artists has clearly not been recognized in the larger narrative of American Art – and for many of the artists on view, the subject of representation is key. Not only “seeing” themselves and presenting what they see in their world, but the need for them to be “seen” – in a way that communicates truths not often found in the larger visual culture of the black experience.
One of the seminal works on view from the Davis Collection is Romare Bearden’s Jazz II. Bearden started using collage in the early 1960s as “an attempt to redefine the image of man in terms of the Black experience”. The subject of jazz musicians and performance halls was a favorite of Bearden’s as well as many of his contemporaries who were influenced by the vibrant music scene in Harlem. Like Donald Black Jr., Bearden wanted to depict his world truthfully: “It is not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda,” he wrote in a 1969 article, “My intention, however, is to reveal through pictorial complexities the richness of a life I know.” Jazz II shows how Bearden used collage and unexpected formal choices (much like jazz music) to create new representations of African American identity, more truthful to the life he saw around him. And throughout the show, one can find examples of artists taking on representation in differing and intriguing ways.
Thomas L. Hudson is a technically brilliant Cleveland painter, who has turned his attention to depicting people in their uniforms at work – as he says “the uniform that’s wrinkled and stained tells a story”. The natural and highly detailed realism of his paintings calls to mind the work of the Dutch Golden Age, revealing the quiet dignity of those that do the dirty work in our society. Hudson explains, “I seek out people that others would not notice or would forget” and brings them into view via his gold-framed canvases. Like Kehinde Wiley, Hudson inserts the “unseen” African American man into a traditional art historical format (formal oil portraiture) usually reserved for wealthy white industrialists, politicians, or war heroes.
Another artist on view that subversively tackles the traditions of art history is William Sylvester Carter, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago after being barred from attending the racially segregated art schools in his native Missouri. The figure of the bather is one of the most common visual tropes in Western art history. Carter’s Bathing Nude is clearly referencing this long tradition of male artists painting women (usually their models) at their bath – known in French as baigneuses or toilettes, Edgar Degas was well-known for them.
Carter subverts this tradition by depicting a nude African American woman as his bather. Approaching his subject from a much more modern point of view (her bleached blonde hair for example), Carter destabilizes the traditional figure of the bather, exposing the prejudices of canonical Western Art History in the process.
Throughout the show, parallels can be drawn between the aims and goals of works found in the Davis Collection with those of contemporary artists working in Cleveland – as Douglas Max Utter points out in his brilliant catalogue introduction: “the exhibit also brings a group of highly accomplished Ohio-based African American artists into visual conversation with the Davis Collection.” It is this term: visual conversation that rings most true. As you walk through the exhibition, echoes between past and present, across boundaries of space and time reveal something of a common search for visibility, for dignity, and for truth.
I urge you to go see this landmark show before it closes (it is open through November 16), and see these visual conversations firsthand while you still can. Their gallery hours are: Wednesday-Friday, 10am–4pm, Saturday, 12pm–4pm. www.artistsarchives.org | sculpturecenter.org