Black art exhibition at Morris Museum depicts ‘fellow travelers on a difficult journey’

bisa butler review

PHOTOS COURTESY OF MORRIS MUSEUM

Bisa Butler’s “Basquiat” is part of the “For the Culture, By the Culture: 30 Years of Black Art, Activism, and Achievement” exhibition at the Morris Museum.

If wide open eyes signify awareness, the subjects of the portraits in “For the Culture, by the Culture: Thirty Years of Black Art, Activism, and Achievement” sure do make their consciousness manifest. The show at the Morris Museum in Morris Township is full of piercing stares. There are looks of accusation, looks of sympathy, looks of anticipation, and looks of profound comprehension. Some of them feel like challenges. Others are simply bright and cutting, like flashlights in a darkened room.

The exhibition, which runs until Sept. 25, is superficially uncomplicated: African-American artists representing African-Americans in oil, crayon, silkscreen, textile images and a few lithographs. Famous faces are here, including that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who peers at us ferociously, one hand pressed against his face, as if he’s trying to restrain his creativity. Nefertiti, a queenly name out of African history, looks as if she’s about to blow right by us; she’s got somewhere to be and no time to waste on trivialities.

William Tolliver, the artist who captures Nefertiti in oil, and Bisa Butler, Basquiat’s mixed-media rhapsodist, know how to augment the heroic aura that has gathered around their subjects. But most of the people depicted in “For the Culture, by the Culture” are everymen and everywomen, faces and bodies marked by signs of quotidian struggle, fiercely individual but also fellow travelers on a difficult journey. We’re shown teachers and storytellers, musicians and poets and quilters, all participants in a culture that has enriched American society but has not always been shown commensurate respect by American authorities.

“For the Culture, by the Culture” is also a victory lap for the champions of African-American visual art in New Jersey, and in Morris County in particular. It celebrates 30 years of Art in the Atrium, an ongoing initiative that has transformed the Morris County Administration and Records Building into an unlikely hotbed of Black art. Art in the Atrium curators Charles D. Craig, Jr., Nette Forné Thomas and Onnie Strother have joined forces with Michelle Graves, their counterpart at the Morris Museum, for a show that spotlights 19 artists who have been featured in AITA exhibitions. The result is simultaneously a testament to the curators’ taste, a demonstration of the enduring value of the Atrium shows, and a striking example of the variety of approaches to the representation of the Black experience taken by talented Black artists.

Alonzo Adams’ “The Matriarch.”

Art in the Atrium never gets too wild. Nothing in this show feels experimental. It’s all figurative art, dedicated to the expression of personality and the exploration of archetypes and symbols common to African-Americans, and Americans in general.

An appreciator of classical 19th century portraiture would find much to admire in Alonzo Adams’ oil painting of “The Matriarch” — an image that would look appropriate on the cover of a Penguin Classic. The background colors are muted, the brushstrokes are carefully and purposefully committed, and the halo of soft light that seems to emanate from the sitter is the only breach of realism. Yet all this traditionalism is quietly undercut by the matriarch herself, who wears an expression and sits in a posture that wouldn’t be encountered in any colonial European portrait. She is fighting through exasperation, and though she has found her footing, the composure she has attained looks hard-won. (She’s giving us a little side-eye, too.) The date on this painting — one that could have been done at any point over the past few centuries — is 2021.

It is meaningful that while “For the Culture, by the Culture” makes room for works by acknowledged masters such as Norman Lewis, Elizabeth Catlett, and Faith Ringgold, many of the most stirring works in this show are quite recent.

In “Dark Child Don’t Cry I,” Adams applies his oils directly on to paper and depicts a youth peering through a frame of rough purple and vicious red paint strokes. Like “The Matriarch,” he seems to be appraising his surroundings and trying to hold it together; he’s been dealt a blow, he’s reeling, but he doesn’t want to show it.

Rosalind Nzinga Nichol’s “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses.”

Rosalind Nzinga Nichol’s elegant mixed-media hallucination “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses” finds Black faces peering out from slender cut-outs of Black bodies. Her figures stand in a rough line and the gentle swirls that ties the congregation together bleed off of the edge of the paper. Every member of the group is composed of other members: Children contain the breaths of ancestor spirits and continuity is unbroken, no matter how ragged present circumstances may be.

James Denmark’s lithographed gardener, surrounded by flowers, is delicate enough to be a butterfly herself, yet wary enough to be a lookout.

Leroy Campbell’s magnetizing 2013 canvas “Words of Wisdom” depicts a white-haired woman on a throne-like orange chair, surrounded by attentive children, palms forward and fingers spread, clearly in the midst of a tale. Behind her hover clippings from newspapers, each one testifying to Black opportunity and achievement. She’s instilling pride.

These displays of dignity do tend to glorify their subjects: Even the raucous discomfort of Butler’s portrait of Basquiat is ultimately ennobling. These artworks address the viewer the way the father in Catlett’s lithograph “New Generation” addresses his child: There are things to teach and much work for the griots to do, and that work will be done in a voice that’s stern and kind and heavy with the weight of history.

William Tolliver’s “Nefertiti.”

Is it all a bit didactic? A little unmoored from the harshness and messiness of Jersey life as it is actually lived? Maybe. But Art in the Atrium has always made dignity its watchword, and “For the Culture, by the Culture” is a prime example of how invigorating that high-minded public television-like aesthetic can be when it’s done properly. These artists make their constructive values clear, and lead with them, but they never lie about pain and injustice. They never hide their subjects’ scars.

This balance between poise and emotional effulgence is present in the work of two artists whom the Morris Museum curators have returned to, frequently, over the last few years, and who make their presence felt in “For the Culture, by the Culture,” too.

Viki Craig was the star of “Social Fabric,” the summer ’21 Morris Museum exhibit dedicated to the distaff tradition of African-American quilting; her tight, poised, gorgeous little piece here arrays silhouettes of 12 “Afro Ladies” on an ivory-colored fabric background.

Jerry Gant, the late Newark visual renegade with a protean take on hip-hop, was given his own show-within-a-show gallery in last year’s “On and Off the Streets: Urban Art New Jersey.” Here, he bends a thick copper wire into the shape of a guarded and squiggle-eyed face. “Untitled” is dented and asymmetrical, but it possesses great forward energy; it has something hard to say, and it’s determined to say it. It could be Tolliver’s “Nefertiti” in outline.

The two artists may not have been collaborators, but they possessed common knowledge. So do their subjects. Should they share the same culture and the same history, an African queen and a Newark commoner might speak the same emotional language — and give the same withering stare.

“For the Culture, by the Culture: Thirty Years of Black Art, Activism, and Achievement” can be seen at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through Sept. 25. Visit morrismuseum.org.

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