They are the pivotal African-American artists who have chronicled their generations. They painted the vibrant colors of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. They struggled with discrimination and identity. They help us examine our lives today.
And they are part of the Telfair Museums’ permanent collection.
“Any one of these artists could merit an entire two-hour lecture in and of themselves,” says Courtney McNeil, Telfair’s Curator of Fine Art and Exhibitions.
But you’re not going to get a two-hour lecture here. In this 35 minute podcast, McNeil gives a broad overview of the 92 works by African-American artists in the Telfair’s permanent collections. And there are some heavyweights.
Florida-born sculpture artist Augusta Savage moved to New York City between the two World Wars and became associated with the exciting and dynamic Harlem Renaissance. One of her sculptures, a bust of artist Jacob Lawrence’s wife, also an artist, Gwendolyn Knight, is displayed in the third floor hallway at the Jepson Center for the Arts. McNeil says that while Knight became an important teacher, she left a relatively small physical legacy because of the labor-intensive process of sculpture.
“She could not afford to cast a lot of her work,” McNeil says. “So her work is very rare today.”
Another heavyweight is Romare Bearden. Born in North Carolina, he moved to New York City as a young boy and later explored religious themes in his depictions of everyday African-American life. Bearden is most known for his collage work. But the Telfair Museums permanent collection has two of his lithographs.
“Even in his works that are lithographs, like the works that we see here, he still uses the style of collage, different textures and surfaces pieced together,” McNeil says.
Moving into more modern art, regular Telfair visitors might remember a couple of remarkable installations that featured artists represented in the permanent collection. One such installation was by the artist Sam Gilliam, whose work blurs the lines between painting and sculpture. Reacting to abstract impressionism, Gilliam used color and form to monumental effect with a draped, stained canvass that filled an entire corner of a large Jepson Center gallery. That was back in the fall of 2006 when the Kentuckian became one of the first artists to have a solo show at the Jepson Center.
“It remains one of my favorite installations of all time in this building,” McNeil says.
Gilliam is represented in the permanent collection by one of his color-stained paintings.
And even more recently, last year’s “Deep River” exhibit left a lasting impact on the permanent collection with the acquisition of “My Precarious Life” by Whitfield Lovell. It depicts an African-American man in a old fashioned top hat. The crayon-drawn man is drawn on found wood. And the entire thing is placed on a precarious metal wheel. The artistic statement here is more obvious than in some of his other works. Lovell wants to show a black man, precariously situated.
The artist received a MacArthur genius grant and is honored by museums and foundations all over the world. So yes, he’s a heavyweight, too.
“It was a thrill to bring him to Savannah to speak,” McNeil says.
“My Precarious Life” is currently on display at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville because the “Deep River” exhibit is currently showing there.
What’s next for African-American art at Telfair Museums? Well, McNeil concludes with a “wish list” of artists whose works she’d love to add to the permanent collection. These include Kehinde Wiley, known for placing African-American men in Baroque backgrounds, and Kara Walker, known for unsettling creativity in referencing slavery.
Acquiring those works might be made a little easier with more Friends of African-American Art. The Telfair Museums’ friends group has been challenged to double membership by the end of this year. When the goal is met, the Lawrence Foundation will make a $25,000 contribution to enhance the group’s goals.
And if you’d like to hear more about African-American art, check out my podcast from last year about the Harlem Renaissance.