HU Museum News
David Driskell Delivers Inspirational Talk on Collecting Art at HU Museum
It was a sermon, if ever there was one — a gospel of art. The "spiritual," soul enriching qualities of creating, viewing and collecting visual art was a recurring theme of the talk presented by David Driskell at the Hampton University Museum on April 5, 2014. The esteemed artist, art historian and collector began his talk with recollections from his own experience. He said he began collecting when he was a young, married, undergraduate student at Howard University and “could barely buy milk for the children."
The occasion was the Curator’s Tea held in connection with the museum’s Building on Tradition exhibition of works from the collection of Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Carnell Locke, Oct. 12, 2013-May 10, 2014. The Lockes got the art spirit and were so moved by it that they amassed more than 1,000 pieces in 10 years.
Painting from HU Museum Collection in Major Exhibition
The Hampton University Museum loaned Archibald Motley’s Black Belt to the Nasher Museum for exhibition in the nationally traveliing exhibition, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. Black Belt has been replaced by Palmer Hayden’s RaceTrack, St. Cloud Paris in the HU Museum's second floor gallery. This replacement has an historical echo. In early Spring 1967, Palmer Hayden was working at the Harmon Foundation when he packed 42 cartons containing works by numerous, now well-known artists, art reproductions, photographs, and photographic equipment from the folding Foundation for shipment to Hampton Institute (now University). Original art in the shipment included Archibald Motley's Black Belt!
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and travels to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (June 14–September 7, 2014); the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (October 19, 2014–February 1, 2015); the Chicago Cultural Center (March 6–August 31, 2015) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (Fall 2015).
Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891-1981) was a prominent artist of the Negro Renaissance (a.k.a. Harlem Renaissance) era. Based in Chicago1, he is credited with capturing the vitality and humanity of the “New Negro” in urban enclaves of the 1930s on the South Side (Bronzeville). Interpretations and analyses of Motley’s oeuvre, particularly his celebrated genre scenes, are often considered in relation to contemporary debates among the black intelligentsia. Did Motley’s portrayal of urban African-Americans of the inter-war years adhere to new aims for visual representation of blacks fostered by Harlem Renaissance figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke? Or, should his work be more closely aligned with expectations of mainstream critics and patrons of the era who sought sensuous or primitive treatments of black subjects in opposition to their perceptions of a staid, Victorian mainstream? Did the artist attempt a new pictorial idiom for black representation built upon connections to African ancestral affinities or were his pictorial treatments, whether consciously or not, more akin to stock types associated with ‘Ole South’ and minstrel imagery? 2 Unpacking insight into the complexity of the artist’s intentions, and his work, remain a vital scholarly project — one to which the Nasher Art Museum (Duke University) exhibition and catalogue significantly contributes. 3
Black Belt (1934) shows an urban street alive with the presence of many portraits of the “New Negro." Both natural and artificial light permeate the scene while the high key color of the subjects’ clothing, building interiors and signs act as a spotlight on the abstract sensuousness of bodies and the implied movement throughout the work. Figures both on the street and in building interiors might be thought to represent the diverse swath of black humanity that occupied the South Side of Chicago throughout the Jazz age, and with closer examination social or class markers differentiate blacks, perhaps, as those more recently transplanted from the South versus longer term urban dwellers. Motley’s formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago, influences from his sojourn to Europe in 1929-30, and the credo of John Sloane, George Luks and other Ash Can School artists to portray contemporary American life realistically are evident here. “…I have tried to paint the negro as I have seen him and as I feel him, in myself without adding or detracting, just being frankly honest”. 5
The Entertainer Plays on in the Central Gallery
Hampton University Museum’s extensive collection of African American art spans from Joshua Johnson’s Portrait of an Unidentified Lady (1805) and works other artists active in the 19th century including Duncanson and Bannister, through works by most major 20th African American artists (including large holdings of works by Henry O. Tanner, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and John Biggers) to a broad array of contemporary artists.
Recently installed in the HU Museum contemporary gallery is Richard Ward’s The Entertainer, a tribute to Scott Joplin from Ward’s Worksongs series of 11 humanoid forms created from musical instruments and work tools.
The series refer to blues, bluegrass, prison and work songs and other roots music and its relation to labor involving brooms, brushes, shovels, pipes and other manual work tools and materials.
In its new location of the museum’s second floor, The Entertainer seems to represent, not only Scott Joplin, “the king of ragtime” but all Americans who, with muscle, sweat and grit, built not only a great nation but also its great, original forms of music. Joplin started out as a laborer on the railroad, a worksite that generated many ditties, songs and chants (especially chain gang chants).
Like jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, Joplin lived the blues that “killed my papa and drove my mama stone blind” (both died of syphilis). And like Jelly Roll Morton, Joplin lived the blues of an itinerant musician — a string of women, cheap boarding houses and honky tonks — the blues that, for Morton, included a stabbing in a bar from which he never fully recovered.
“The (Worksongs) series was originally designed to address my love and appreciation for the blues,” says Richard Ward, a Hampton VA-based artist and educator. “As it turned out, the series took on the social aspects that are born the blues as well as the music itself.”
The rhythmic shouts and percussive beats of black roots music synchronized and empowered hard work and eased misery. Rhyming, blued notes and the new syncopations of ragtime also seemed to evoke the essence of truth about life and suffering and produce pleasure in its revelation. Oppressed folk squeezed joy from pain through the well-turned rhyme of a lively rhythm: "Ought's a ought, figger's a figger, all for the white man, none for the nigger." These ditties abounded. "Now, Mister Boll Weevil if you can talk why don't you tell/Bout poor Kokomo down here in Georgia catchin' a lot of hell."
When roots musicians moved from making music with their bodies to instrumentation, they systematically broke down harmonic melody and remade it in new, thrilling and contrary ways that went off the regular beat – i.e., syncopation.
Rebuilt broken rhythm penetrated piano playing, was broken back down and built back up on the eighty-eight, producing "ragtime." "Doctors" — cutting masters — were the mothers of this rollicking new sound. In contests to cut out all competition, ragtime pianists created ever more intricate renderings of the rhythms of modern times. Uprights throbbed with the reverberations of port cities and frontier towns docks — the rhythms of levees, brothels and saloons, sawmills and turpentine camps, of front parlors, back alleys, soda fountains, stables, horse races, world's fair midways, street cars, assembly lines, pounding machinery and flickering nickelodeons.
Informal yet virtuosic, ingenuous yet complicated, improvised yet calculated, mechanical yet syncopated, ragtime, the novelty music of the 1890s, was the sound of the coming century.
Richard Ward’s assemblage of sundry materials also is reminiscent of the resourcefulness of black people during Joplin’s era — how they made many of life necessities by salvaging odd bits and pieces. They often turned these scraps into unique artistic expressions, just as Richard Ward has done.
The Entertainer plays on in the central gallery on the second floor of the HU Museum.
Archibald Motley Notes
The commentary in this column on Archibald Motley was contributed by John Welch, Ph.D., an art historian based in Philadelphia.
1. The flowering in the arts during the 1920s and 1930s commonly associated with uptown Manhattan (Harlem Renaissance) is argued to be much broader that any single geographic location. Motley’s career serves as one example of the Harlem Renaissance beyond the bounds of Manhattan.
See Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson, A History of African American Artists From 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).Richard J. Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997 and 2002).
2. For analyses of the “New Negro” and visual representation see,
Mary Ann Calo, Distinction and Denial: Race, Nation, and the Critical Construction of the African American Artist, 1920-40 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007).
Powell, pp. 41-65.
Bearden & Henderson, pp. 115-135.
3. Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist (Curator: Richard J. Powell) on view January 30-May 11, 2014 (Nasher Art Museum, Duke University)
Catalogue text: Davarian L. Baldwin, David C. Driscoll, Olivier Meslay, Ann M. Mooney, Ishmael Reid.
4. As quoted, Bearden & Henderson, p. 152.
5. Archibald J. Motley, Jr., “How I Solve My Painting Problems,” 1929 (Harmon Foundation Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.).