Category Archives: African American Art

Art Basel goes ‘Afropolitan’

Left to right: Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, leading art curator Lowery Sims and writer/curator Ludlow Bailey. (Photo: Jessica Kassin)Left to right: Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, leading art curator Lowery Sims and writer/curator Ludlow Bailey. (Photo: Jessica Kassin)

by Ludlow E. Bailey

MIAMI BEACH. Fla – Basel Miami Beach 2013 turned 12 years old this year, and it has clearly come of age.

Basel is no longer just a city in Switzerland. It is now used as both a verb and a noun by those drawn to Miami Beach for the four-day “winter meeting of the international art world.” It’s a kind of post 21stCentury word with multiple uses, roughly translated as “bliss and beauty.” As experienced at the show to end all art shows, Basel means to laugh out loud while overindulging the imagination with art and music  or  to dance from your heart without caring who is watching. And it’s a destination where multi-cultural artists rule.

With the presence of more artists of African descent than ever, Basel is also increasingly an amalgamation of rock and roll, the blues, and Yoruba rituals with a mixture of classical West African High Life, salsa, hip hop, regalia (reggae) and meringue. It is Rashaad Newsome, Wangechi Mutu, Mikalene Thomas, Yinka Shonibare, Armando Marino, Kehinde Wiley, Christopher Cozier, Hank Willis Thomas, Ellington Robinson, Alexander Arrechea, Amadou Yacine, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Shinique Smith, Nick Cave, El Anatsui, Betye Saar, but also Kendrick Lamar, Swizz Beats and Pharrell.

You might call it “Afropolitan.”

Basel Miami Beach (BMB) is  young, but it already has far more potential than the original: Basel Switzerland. And that’s in no small part because “Basel on the beach” is significantly more multi-national and diverse. BMB 2013 was a wonderland of contemporary world culture with a pulsating global African presence.

Highlights of BMB 2013

– In 2013, Jack Shainman Gallery continued to dominate the contemporary Africana Art market at BMB.  The gallery has an outstanding collection of work from artists Nick Cave, Lynette Boayke, Toyin Odulata, Hank Willis, Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, Odili Donald Odita and Radcliff Bailey.

– Lynette Boayke has been rising steadily in the contemporary art world. The Ghanaian born artist was recently short listed for the Turner Prize in Britain. She also won the prestigious Putnik Prize at this year’s Venice Biennale.  The New Perez Miami Art Museum recently added her work to their collection.   Miami art Collector Dennis Scholl (Trustee of the Perez Museum), is a major fan and says her work is very “sensitive and compelling.” Her mastery is revealed in the precision in which she paints and captures the figurative gaze.

– Kerry James Marshall’s untitled black male painting with the Black Nationalist flag was by far the most commanding work at Jack Shainman Gallery.  It is an exceptional representation of Kerry James’ masterful painting skills. Professor Horace Brokington from Columbia University said that Marshall’s work might very well be one of the best Africana pieces in this year’s BMB fair. It sold for $400,000.

– Isaac Julien’s “The Abyss” was mesmerizing. (Slide 17) It took my breath away.

– Hank Willis, who has attended 10 of the Art Basel fairs,  said he was “delighted with the range and quality of the Africana work at BMB this year.” He was particularly impressed with the Mickalene Thomas’s work at the show, which he said demonstrated a meteoric growth in quality and execution.

– The two South African Galleries (The Goodman from Johannesburg and the Stevenson Gallery from Cape Town) in the main show had some of the most outstanding African Diasporic work in the Convention Center.

– Meschac Gaba’s ‘Citoyen du Monde” (citizen of the world), inkjet print on synthetic canvas, edition of 3, work was one of  the most striking and fascinating pieces in the show. The artist used images of all the flags of the world to create a multi-dimensional piece that was full of light, energy and color.  Gaba is from Benin and currently lives between Cotonou and Rotterdam. In 2013, The Tate Modern, London presented his Museum of Contemporary Art (1997-2002) a 12 room installation which fuses art and daily life. Gaba’s work was also exhibited in the Havana Biennale in 2006 and Documenta 11 in 2002.

A growing African presence

The Global African Presence at Basel 2013 continues to grow. This year saw the introduction of two new African centered fairs: Prizm and Miami Fusion. The iconic Bettye Saar (creator of the infamous “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima”) was honored by Miami Fusion with a lifetime achievement award. At eighty seven years old, she is still raising hell and challenging the status quo with her provocative pieces.

Meanwhile, the Global Caribbean exhibition has carved out a distinguished reputation for outstanding shows during the Basel Week. This year’s show featured the work of Miami-based Caribbean artists Glexis Nova, Noelle Theard, Rodney Jackson, Fabian Pena and Misael Soto.

The Betsy hotel has become the venue and the meeting place for the Afropolitan Art connoisseurs and is a requisite destination for Global African Art and art salon conversations during Basel. A highlight was Caribbean Artist (Trinidadian) Christopher Cozier’s light box Installation, “The Arrest: Hands up, Hand out.” Cozier’s imagination is unfathomable. He uses light and color to create parallel universes that are as powerful as the energy of matter.

The salon conversation at the Betsy on “Creative Collaborations in the 21st Century” was  co-moderated by Lowery Sims, Saul Ostrow and Leslie Hammond King, and was very informative, interactive and engaging. The audience and dialogue was multi-cultural and global. All three moderators demonstrated a deep sense of knowledge and perspicacity of their subjects and in turn orchestrated a welcome and open discussion that inspired participation from a compelling audience of artists, writers, fashion designers, film makers, architects, photographers, curators and academics.

The pace of Art Basel Miami Beach week is no doubt peripatetic, hectic and intense, but the experience is well worth it.

Ludlow E. Bailey is a writer, cultural curator and international art broker.



IAF brings cultural treasures and economic opportunities to N.O.

By Edmund W. Lewis

For almost three decades, the International Arts Foundation has been fulfilling its mission of bringing cultural treasures to the Crescent City and promoting intercultural exchange between people of African descent living in New Orleans and their African cousins in the Motherland, South America, the Caribbean and the rest of the Diaspora.

Founded in New Orleans in 1987, the Foundation has been actively involved in promoting performance and visual arts in the community. The efforts have included bringing the Reggae Riddims Festival and its successor, the International Arts Festival, to the Crescent City. Those festivals have given local children and residents an opportunity to enjoy the music, dancing and visual creations of artists from Africa, South America and the Caribbean.


Celebrated drummer Luther Gray, right, and South African recording artist Ernie J. Smith visit Congo Square last week as the heralded musical ‘Africa Umoja, The Spirit of Togetherness’ kicked off its U.S. tour in New Orleans. Smith, a jazz vocalist and guitarist signed to New Orleans-based SAIG Entertainment, opened for the musical, which ran July 10-13 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts.Celebrated drummer Luther Gray, right, and South African recording artist Ernie J. Smith visit Congo Square last week as the heralded musical ‘Africa Umoja, The Spirit of Togetherness’ kicked off its U.S. tour in New
Orleans. Smith, a jazz vocalist and guitarist signed to New Orleans-based SAIG Entertainment, opened for the musical, which ran July 10-13 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts.

According to the IAF website, the Foundation’s mission is “to use music, education and art to promote cultural diversity and global awareness; implement cultural, civic, educational and economic development programs to benefit the community and increase awareness of the value of culturally diverse communities.”“Our local purpose is to make sure we include people of color in the business of performing arts,” IAF founder, chairman and president Ernest Kelly explained to The Louisiana Weekly in an interview Thursday. “When we first started out with the festival, there may have been one or two bands playing world music or reggae music, but there has been an explosion of artists turning to those forms of music. We had to actually help a lot of groups and businesses to get an identity in terms of how they can be successful in the marketplace.”

The Foundation has brought cultural enrichment to the youth of New Orleans by offering dance and drumming classes, special performances by international artists and collaborations at summer camps in conjunction with the New Orleans Recreation Department to offer young people information about conflict resolution, career goals and creative expression.

“There are a lot of things we have done over the years through the Foundation that are directly related to our international experience,” Kelly said.

Kelly, an accountant by trade, says his experiences with the performing arts go all the way back to his days as an undergrad at Louisiana Tech. He was one of a small group of students charged with the task of bringing entertainment to the north Louisiana campus.

“I was able to learn the business of entertainment through that, all it takes to really make it happen,” Kelly told The Louisiana Weekly. “We’ve been using that to not only do festivals but to do shows around the world including several projects in Jamaica and Africa.

“The Foundation is international — it means something,” he continued. “We actually have programs that are affecting Africa.”

While Black New Orleans’ cultural wealth is the stuff of legends, those cultural riches have not translated into material wealth for local artists. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” Kelly said. “Somebody has been benefiting from our propensity to create culture and make people feel good. Our thing is we should also materially benefit. Part of the Foundation’s mission is to provide avenues and knowledge on how to profit from creative expression.”

Like many New Orleans groups, the IAF was severely impacted by Hurricane Katrina, losing its staff and office to the devastating storm and subsequent levee breaks that flooded 80 percent of the city. After several years of struggling to right its ship in the wake of the storm, the Foundation has bounced back and is again challenging the city’s young people to find ways to make a living by developing their creative talents.

The International Arts Foundation’s latest offering was presented over the weekend with the beginning of its national tour of “Africa Umoja” The Spirit of Togetherness,” a critically ac­claimed musical that features 32 South Africans in a production that has been called everything from phenomenal to life-changing.
“Umoja” is also slated to make stops in Atlanta,

To bring “Umoja” to the U.S., the IAF partnered with SAIG Entertainment, where Kelly serves as managing partner of the New Orleans-based jazz label. The company was formed in 2005 and has worked with the IAF to produce a number of festivals and initiatives in Durban, South Africa.

“Africa Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness” is an exhilarating, award-winning, Broadway-bound South African musical with a cast of 32 performers that has performed for kings, queens, presidents and sold-out audiences worldwide in over 50 countries. Audiences experience life in townships through authentic tribal dancing, joyous gospel singing, explosive drumming, and a funny and absolutely gut-wrenching performance. Besides the musical being an exciting tribute to South Africa and the Zulu heritage through a blend of traditional and contemporary elements, one of the highlights of the show is the tribute to Nelson Mandela which includes the song “Long Road to Freedom” written in honor of Mr. Mandela. It is performed by the cast to visuals of Mandela in jail on Robben Island and his release from Polsmoor Prison in 1990. It also features the music of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and other South African artists.

Among those in town last week to promote “Umoja” was South African-born jazz guitarist and vocalist Ernie J. Smith, who recently signed with New Orleans-based SAIG Entertainment and plans to release his first U.S. project, Time For Love, this fall.

Although widely known across the African continent, Smith has not yet received similar media exposure and acclaim in the U.S. though that is likely to change very soon. His first five projects have earned the Kwazulu (Durban), South Africa) native numerous awards and honors including several BAMA (African equivalent of U.S. Grammy Awards) and KORA and METRO awards.

Although he isn’t a household name in the U.S. yet, Smith has already worked with music greats like Jonathan Butler and Kirk Whalum.

His new CD will feature collaborations with gospel crooner BeBe Winans and a host of South African artists.

Smith said that his first visit to New Orleans was all he had hoped for, with locals showering him with the city’s legendary warmth and hospitality immediately upon his arrival at Louis Armstrong Inter­national Airport.

Smith says he was treated less than hospitably at an airport in the northeastern U.S. before making it to New Orleans. “When I got to the New Orleans airport, strangers and passengers that didn’t even know me were like, ‘How you doing?’” he said. “New Orleans is so warm — it’s the southern hospitality. The first thing that grabbed me before I even got into the music and the food was the people. The people are warm, exciting and beautiful.”

Smith said the people of New Orleans remind him a great deal of his hometown, Kwazulu Natal. “The people are very friendly culturally, just by way of their up­bringing,” he said. “They’re taught to be friendly, kind and welcoming. New Orleans reminds me a lot of my home. Africans are very welcoming and very easy to get along with.”

Smith was supposed to perform this spring at Jazz Fest with Donald Harrison and Delfeayo Marsalis but was unable to do so.

The South African vocalist/guitarist looks forward to working with a number of New Orleans artists and is set to produce Bamboula’s next project.

“I’m actually planning to come to New Orleans sometime next year to work with some of the well-known musicians here,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “I’m trying to explore the whole African-New Orleans sound. I have big plans to do that.”

The Foundation has been working with NORD, city officials and community-based groups to get more of the city’s young people into Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts to experience “Umoja.” The producers of the show graciously agreed to allow groups of children and their adult chaperones into the show free of charge Friday and Saturday night. Those who were interested in attending were asked to register with Councilman James Gray’s office by sending an email to The councilman’s office replied to those seeking tickets with an email that gave them access.

“You won’t forget it,” Ernest Kelly said Thursday. “A lot of people’s standard has been ‘The Lion King.’ This is ‘The Lion King’ on steroids. This is the real deal. This is all real Africans, not local actors. …Once you experience it, you will be enlightened and entertained in a culture that helps you to understand some of the stuff that we do. It’s not new to them — these are like your cousins, your long-lost cousins that you didn’t know you had. It’ll bring that kind of feeling to everything.

“We intend to make it a staple,” Kelly added. “I don’t think this is going to be the last time it comes to New Orleans.”

Fans of the International Arts Festival, which has not been held since Katrina devastated the city, plans to bring the global festival back to City Park next year. “Before Katrina, we were the third-oldest festival behind Jazz Fest and the Tomato Fest,” Kelly told the Weekly, “We plan to bring the festival back in a big way.”

Kelly encouraged New Orleans residents to step outside of their comfort zones to support events like the “Umoja” musical. “We must figure out a way to get their support,” he said. “Everybody has to pitch in and help.”

While Kelly is pleased with New Orleans’ reputation among tourists as a world-class city with great food, music, culture and people, he said that it’s important that the city’s residents of color make an effort to expand their minds and view themselves as active members of the global community.

“Everybody wants to come to New Orleans because they know they’re going to have a good time, but we also want them to come because we appreciate what’s going on around us,” he said. “That’s why we’ve got to keep building and growing. Organi­zations like the International Arts Foundation, NOSACONN (New Orleans-South African Con­nection) and others need to keep pushing.”

Kelly says one of the Inter­national Arts Foundation’s most critical challenges is helping people to understand New Orleans’ importance as a cultural reservoir, a stronghold for African cultural continuity in the Western Hemi­sphere. “Knowledge is power and once you arm people with knowledge, half the battle is done,” he said. “Whether you understand it or not, New Orleans is one of America’s most African cities and it sounds and feels the way it does and the food tastes the way it does because of a lot of those influences. You can run away from it, but something or someone is always going to lead you back. …Without us, there’s no culture, there’s no New Orleans.”


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Conversation with upcoming Jamaican sculptor, Dvane Cunningham


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This week we have a conversation with a young upcoming Jamaican sculptor, Dvane Cunningham. The past student of Spanish Town High School has won several visual arts awards including from the JCDC and Spanish Town Homecoming. His impress sculptures make him one to watch in the future.

When did you know being a sculptor was your calling?
I was initially interested in drawing and drew every time I got the chance, then I came across clay and played around with it for a while and realized that l loved it, this was about the age of 13 or 14 and from then till today I have not parted ways with it.

Tell us about your work?
My pieces are what I would call a spur of the moment, ideas come naturally, and not just any idea. I like to make things that I’ve never seen before, think way out of the box all in an effort to get the attention of the average person. So my ceramic and sculpture pieces must have a meaning and each individual should be able to relate to them some way or the other.

What is the title of the piece we saw with all the ladies reaching for the sky? What inspired the piece?
The title of the piece with the ladies reaching for the sky as you put it is called the Masochist and it tells the story of women who are suffering physical pain or humiliation, but they like it and they reach to the skies glorifying this pain. This piece was inspired by an article I read on masochism and while reading this article the idea for the piece flashed before my eyes and I just executed it.

What is your favorite material to use in your sculptures?
My favorite material to use for my pieces is clay, it’s easier to manipulate and I feel comfortable working with it.

How do you choose the subjects you are going to sculpture?
My sculpture or ceramic pieces normally start off as rough sketches in my sketch book and then I eliminate the ideas that I think come across as ordinary and then I just start working.

If I was to commission a piece from you, what are the steps we would go through to do that?
If you were to commission a piece from me, firstly I would like to know what kind of art are you interested in whether its abstract, realist etc. then we would go through colours and that sort a thing then I get started.

If you were to be commissioned for a large outdoor work in Ceramics, what would be your dream piece?
A large outdoor ceramic piece……..I never actually thought about doing a large scale piece but I would have to say something that is associated with wild life would be most appropriate.

What is the advice you were ever given when you started to sculpture?
I was never given any advice when I initially started ceramics; I guess the people in my surrounding realized that I had a gift in a sense where it was concerned so I was left to do what I wanted basically.

What playing on your mp3 player right now?
Ok so the music on my mp3 player varies because I listen to quite a few artists like Adele, Sia, Keyshia Cole, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj.

The thing people would be most surprised about me is…
The thing people would be most surprised to know about me…….I am terrified of public speeches. So I’m a shy person at times but if I’m caught in a situation where I have to then I will do my best to not stumble over my words and just get it done and over with.



Exhibition featuring 19th-century African American master cabinetmaker Thomas Day opens at Renwick Gallery April 12

SmithsonianThe exhibition “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” fully examines the extraordinary career of Thomas Day (1801-about 1861), who owned and operated one of North Carolina’s most successful cabinet shops before the Civil War. Day’s surviving woodworks represent the finest of 19th-century craftsmanship and aesthetics. The exhibition was organized by the North Carolina Museum of History and is on view at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., from April 12 through July 28.

Day was a master cabinetmaker and entrepreneur whose business flourished during a time when most African Americans were enslaved and free blacks were restricted in their movements and activities. The exhibition showcases 37 pieces of furniture crafted by Day or attributed to his workshop. The exhibition also includes three period quilts from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a Bible owned by Day, historic photographs and contemporary photographs of architectural interiors designed by Day.

“Thomas Day’s story of talent, entrepreneurship and hard work exemplifies a distinctly American experience and conveys this nation’s rich artistic and cultural history,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “This exhibition presents careful research and fine historical objects that have special charm still today.”

During the antebellum years (1820–1861), North Carolina planters used both classical architecture and fine furniture to convey economic status and gentility. Day, whose father was a cabinetmaker, opened his shop in 1827 in Milton, N.C., where he created fine furniture and architectural interiors for an elite clientele. Day’s style is characterized by undulating shapes, fluid lines and spiraling forms. He combined his own unique motifs with popular designs to create a distinctive style readily identified with his shop. Day is the only documented American cabinetmaker to offer clients both architectural elements for their Greek Revival homes and furniture incorporating the same classical motifs. To date, woodwork in about 80 homes in rural North Carolina and Virginia has been attributed to Day.

The rocking chair is an American invention, and those offered by Day were unique in design. Day’s rockers include extended arm supports with tight scrolls that serve as both functional hand rests and decorative features. Day created a fluid line from the front to the back of the chair, introducing a subtle sense of motion through the curvilinear design of arms, supports, seat frame and rockers.

In the 1850s, Day transformed the fashionable French Antique style, with abundant displays of intricate scrolls paired with fruit and foliage designs, into a style known as Day’s Exuberant style. A hallmark of this style is positive and negative space within the design elements, a technique he employed for both furniture forms and architectural elements. Day’s stylistic exuberance reached new heights in fancy display cabinets, called a “whatnot.” An example in the exhibition features pierced gallery shelves with sinuous S-curves and scrolls.

View Slide Show

Free Public Programs

A series of free, public programs celebrating Day’s work will be presented at the Renwick Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition. A talk and book signing by Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, co-author of the book that accompanies the exhibition and professor and historic preservation coordinator at the University of North Carolina, is Friday, April 12, at noon. A panel discussion “Thomas Day: The Man, The Maker, The Mogul” begins at 1 p.m. Friday, May 10; John Franklin, program manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, will moderate a discussion with Donna Day, a descendent of Thomas Day; James Roark, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History at Emory University; and Michael Ausbon, associate curator of decorative arts at the North Carolina Museum of History.

Additional programs include a gallery talk by Kennedy Wednesday, May 1, at noon; an exhibition tour with furniture conservator Don Williams Friday, June 7, at noon; a gallery talk by Nona Martin, public programs manager, Wednesday, June 26, at noon; and “In the Time of Day” Saturday, July 27, from noon to 3 p.m. featuring re-enactors and performers in the galleries, demonstrations by furniture maker Jerome Bias and readings from Day’s letters to his daughter by storyteller and historian Fred Motley. Additional information is available online A themed scavenger hunt for children and families, “Day’s Way,” is available daily at the Information Desk during the run of the exhibition.


An illustrated book accompanies the exhibition ($42; The University of North Carolina Press). Written by Patricia Phillips Marshall, curator of decorative arts for the North Carolina Executive Mansion and the North Carolina Museum of History, and Leimenstoll, the book presents a new understanding of the powerful sense of aesthetics and design that mark Day’s legacy. It is available for purchase in the Renwick Gallery museum store.


“Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” is based on an exhibition organized by the North Carolina Museum of History. The James Renwick Alliance supports the exhibition presentation at the Renwick Gallery.

About the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the vision and creativity of Americans with artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. The museum’s branch for craft and decorative art, the Renwick Gallery, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Metrorail station: Farragut North (Red line) and Farragut West (Blue and Orange lines). Follow the museum on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Flickr, ArtBabble, iTunes and YouTube. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Website:


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Awards honor African-American authors, illustrators


  • By Karen MacPherson Scripps Howard News Service

Contributed photo/Simon & Schuster Bryan Collier earns the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for “I, Too, Am America.”

Each year, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards put a spotlight on the best children’s books created by African-American authors and illustrators.

Established in 1969 by two librarians, these awards have been a cornerstone of the effort to diversify American children’s literature.

The winners are chosen annually by a committee of librarians and other children’s-literature experts, under the sponsorship of the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, a group within the American Library Association. The 2013 award winners were announced in late January.

Here’s a look at the latest winners.

Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award:

Bryan Collier has won numerous awards since he began publishing children’s books nearly 15 years ago, including a number of Coretta Scott King Awards. This year, he picked up another Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his stunningly evocative illustrations for “I, Too, Am America” (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 6 up).

The text of the book is a brief, well-known poem by Langston Hughes; the poem is a love song to the “darker brother,” who is also an integral part of the nation’s history. Hughes’ poem is general in nature, but, in his illustrations, Collier interprets the text as if it were being told by Pullman porters, those African-Americans who served passengers on trains from the end of the Civil War through the 1960s.

Collier uses his trademark mixed-media style for the illustrations, adding in a flag motif. Writing in a note at the back of the book, Collier says he used the flag motif to show “how far African-Americans have come in this country since the Pullman porters’ time, and even

since Hughes’s time, and how bright our future can be.”

Note: Although it didn’t win any awards, Collier’s illustrations also offer a visual treat in “Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington” (Little Brown, $16.99, ages 7-10). Combined with a lyrical text written by Jabari Asim, Collier’s illustrations underscore the determination and courage of a well-known African-American hero.

Two Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor books were selected:

In “Ellen’s Broom” (Putnam, $16.99, ages 4-8), illustrator Daniel Minter uses a technique in which linoleum block prints are printed by hand and then painted.

The result is vibrant artwork that highlights both the joy and sorrow of a family of newly freed slaves who star in the text written by Kelly Starling Lyons. The main character is a young girl named Ellen, who is fascinated by the broom that is displayed above the fireplace in her family’s home, especially after she learns that, because they were slaves, her parents couldn’t legally marry. Instead, they “jumped the broom” to show their commitment to each other.

Now that they are free, Ellen’s parents decide to legally marry, and the broom plays a major part in their special day — with a little help from Ellen. Lyons’ text is simply told, while Minter’s illustrations portray a close-knit family just learning what freedom is all about.

The text by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a classic, but artist Kadir Nelson brings new power and inspiration through his artwork in “I Have a Dream” (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, $18.99, ages 8 up).

As always, Nelson’s illustrations, done in oil paint, are majestic, yet they also underline King’s humanity, as well as the humanity of those for whom his speech was meant. With his artwork, Nelson helps readers to truly understand King’s passion for nonviolent change.

Coretta Scott King Author Award:

In “Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America” (Hyperion, $19.99, ages 8 up), author Andrea Davis Pinkney offers stirring, meticulously researched biographies of a range of African-American heroes, from baseball’s Jackie Robinson to President Barack Obama.

While this volume could easily be used for school reports because of its wealth of information, Andrea Davis Pinkney’s entertaining, lively text, combined with husband Brian Pinkney’s illustrations, make this a book that also can be used for pleasure reading — especially for those times when a bit of inspiration would come in handy.

Two Coretta Scott King Author Honor books were chosen:

In “Each Kindness” (Penguin, $16.99, ages 4-8), author Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of a young girl named Chloe who refuses to be friendly with a new girl named Maya.

Even Chloe doesn’t quite understand why she is being mean to Maya, but Chloe’s decision to turn against Maya means that other girls will follow her lead. As a result, Maya has no friends and spends recess by herself, despite her repeated early efforts to reach out and make friends with Chloe and others.

Then, one day, Maya’s seat is empty, and she never returns to school. Chloe suddenly feels ashamed of how unkind she has been to Maya and wants to make it up to her. But it’s too late, because Maya and her family moved away. Chloe has learned about kindness, but she will never be able to be kind to Maya.

Woodson’s affecting story, with its strong echoes of Eleanor Estes’ classic “The Hundred Dresses,” is beautifully brought to life by the watercolor illustrations by E.B. Lewis. Overall, this is a book that will undoubtedly be used by parents and teachers as a way to help children understand that, as Woodson writes, “each kindness makes the whole world a little bit better.”

Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines history and fiction in “No Crystal Stair” (Carolrhoda, $17.95, ages 12 up) as she tells the fascinating story of her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who created a bookstore in Harlem that became the premier place to find books by and about African-Americans.

Featuring eye-catching line drawings by R. Gregory Christie, “No Crystal Stair” is an unusual combination of fact and fiction. Nelson also incorporates photos into the text.

Nelson tells her story chronologically, from a variety of viewpoints, giving a well-rounded picture of Michaux, who had a checkered past but also a passion for promoting African-American authors.

The result is an intriguing portrait of a man who was called the “Harlem Professor.” At the book’s conclusion, Nelson includes reminiscences of key African-Americans, including poet Nikki Giovanni and award-winning artist Ashley Bryan, whose lives and work were deeply affected by Michaux and his Harlem bookstore.


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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in African American Art


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Ken Johnson, Times Art Critic, Taken To Task In Open Letter

Ken Johnson Racist

An open letter is demanding New York Times critic Ken Johnson acknowledge racist and sexist language in his recent writings.

The art critic’s review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles” and November’s preview of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” are being called out for their generalizations of black and female artists. The open letter states:

“Using irresponsible generalities, Johnson compares women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking.”

Johnson’s “Now Dig This!” review states: “Black artists didn’t invent assemblage…Thanks to white artists like George Herms, Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz, assemblage was popular on the West Coast in the 1960s.” The open letter counters:

“No historian, artist or curator has ever made a claim that anyone, black or white, “invented” assemblage. In fact, assemblage has roots in many cultures and it is well documented that European and American Modernist artists borrowed heavily from African art in their use of the form.”

On his Facebook page, Johnson later acknowledged that the initial statement, “taken out of context seems needlessly provocative,” but argues “my overall point, however, I think is consistent with Ms. Jones’s [the museum curator’s] description of the historical and social milieu in which black sculptors were working in Los Angeles in the 1960s.”

Johnson’s review also pushes buttons towards the end when it praises the artists whose work “you don’t have to be black to feel,” which seems to place the burden on the black artist to appeal to the white viewer.

ArtFagCity’s Paddy Johnson suggests Johnson should focus less on the distanceseparating art and personal experience when she writes, “Rather than wondering at the size of the gap between how white visitors and black visitors view ‘Dig This!,’ we should be looking at what can be done—and what has been done, by curator Kellie Jones—to shrink it.”

Soon after the “Now Dig This!” review Johnson seemed to make another uninformed generalization, this time about female artists:

“The day that any woman earns the big bucks that men like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst rake in is still a long way off. Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?”

Johnson does not go on to elaborate on what kind of women do tend to make, because of course women do not tend to make any certain kind of art. Instead Johnson seems to place women at fault for their lack of representation in the art market, even though he mentions sexism in the art market. This isn’t the first time Johnson has been under fire for his opinions, however. ARTINFO reminds us that Johnson’s previous reviews have been accused of being insensitive toward both Asian and Chicano artists.

The open letter concludes: “Johnson replays stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity in the guise of serious inquiry, but that inquiry never happens.” It demands that the New York Times acknowledge its lapse in judgment for publishing Johnson’s contentious reviews.

With 1,182 signatures and counting, it’s difficult to ignore this call to arms, especially since the petition includes prominent artists and critics such as Emily Roysdon, Clifford Owens, Lucy Raven and Lorraine O’Grady as well as curators Chon Noriega, Brooke Davis Anderson and Dan Cameron.

What do you think, readers? Are Johnson’s statements prejudiced or are readers being overly sensitive? See the open letter here and leave your opinion in the comments below.

Clarification: Although the document was posted on, the writers of the letter have suggested that it is merely an “open letter,” and not a petition. Language has been changed throughout to reflect this fact.

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Posted by on December 3, 2012 in African American Art


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Curator Talk at the American Art Museum on African-American Art Exhibition

Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 Bar and Grill depicts the reality of segregation of the Jim Crow South, a new experience to the Harlem artist. American Art Museum

In black and white, she sits reclined between the knees of an older woman. Her hair is half braided, her eyes glance sideways toward the camera. The image, on display at the American Art Museum, is a moment in photographer Tony Gleaton’s Tengo Casi 500 Años (I am nearly 500 years old), but when Renée Ater saw it, she could have sworn she was looking at herself.

Though the young girl in the photograph is sitting in Honduras, Mecklenburg says when Ater, a professor of art history at the University of Maryland, saw her, she said, “It’s like looking in a mirror from when I was that age.” Ater explained to Mecklenburg, “Getting your hair braided was something that involved community, it wasn’t one person who did all your braids. If people’s hands got tired or you got wiggly or something, people would shift off and so it became a way for a girl to be part of the women’s group.”

The idea of an individual encountering community and society animates much of the work in the American Art Museum’s exhibit, “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond,” as is the case with Jacob Lawrence’s Bar and Grill, created after his first trip to the highly segregated South. But Mecklenburg, who will give her curator talk tomorrow says of the show, “In some ways it’s–I don’t know if I should say this out loud–but it’s sort of anti-thematic.” Organized loosely around ideas of spirituality, African diaspora, injustice and labor, the show jumps from artist to artist, medium to medium, year to year. The show features the work of 43 artists and several new acquisitions, including Lawrence’s painting. A huge figure in African-American art, Lawrence’s work can often overshadow artists dealing with divergent concerns.

The exhibit features recent work, including Felrath Hines’ 1986 Red Stripe with Green Background. American Art Museum

One such artist was Felrath Hines who served as the head of the conservation lab first at the National Portrait Gallery and later at the Hirshhorn. Hines’ Red Stripe with Green Background sits surrounded by portraits and sculptures of found objects. In contrast to the cubist social realism of Lawrence’s pieces, Hines’ abstract geometric forms are calm and open, devoid of protest. “They are these incredibly pristine, absolutely perfectly calibrated geometric abstractions. There is a mood to each of them,” says Mecklenburg. He is an artist’s artist, having studied at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. And he is a black artist.

Mecklenburg wanted to organize a group of artists under the banner of African-American art to show how incredibly diverse that can be, that there was no one thing on the minds of black artists. “We tend to categorize things to make it easier to understand to help us understand relationships, but when you look at the reality it’s complicated, it’s a little messy.”

“We’re a museum of American art and one of our missions and convictions is that we need to be a museum representative of all American artists, of the broad range of who we are as a country,” says Mecklenburg. It’s an obvious statement now, but when the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized its 1969 exhibit, “Harlem On My Mind,” it decided not to feature any Harlem artists. Black artists, including Hines, protested the lack of representation not just in the exhibit ostensibly about Harlem, but in major permanent collections as well.

Mixing multiple religious traditions, Keith Morrison creates a unique view into his world and memory. 1988, American Art Museum

The show also benefits because Mecklenburg knows many of the artists personally. She knows, for instance, that Keith Morrison’s bizarre painting Zombie Jamboree is not just a study of the interwoven religious traditions Morrison grew up with in Jamaica, but a fantastical memory from his childhood. “One of his friends had drowned in a lake when they were boys,” says Mecklenburg, “especially when you’re a young kid, you don’t know where your friend has gone and you don’t know what’s happened to him, but you hear stories. So you have this incredible, vivid imagination–he certainly did.”

Rather than create a chronology of artistic development, Mecklenburg has created a constellation, a cosmic conversation each artist was both a part of and distinct from.

“What I’m hoping is that people will see a universe of ideas that will expand their understanding of African-American culture, there isn’t anything monolithic about African-American culture and art. I’m hoping that they will come away seeing that the work is as diverse, as beautiful, as far-ranging aesthetically and in terms of meaning and concept as art in any other community.”

See a slideshow of images in the exhibit here.


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