Celebrating Common Ground Through African American Art

Posted: July 29, 2015
Source: Katie Houston
Job Title: Marketing & PR Coordinator
Department: Hi-resolution photos available
Phone: (269) 585-9297
Email: katieh@kiarts.org

Common Ground 2015 72dpi

AUGUST 8, 2015
KALAMAZOO, MI--The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts will open a new exhibition on August 22: Common Ground: African American Art from the Flint Institute of Arts, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and the Muskegon Museum of Art, with sculpture, paintings, and works on paper by more than 60 artists.

The public is invited to a free exhibition preview and reception Friday, August 21, 5:30 - 8 pm, to enjoy a first look at the exhibition, refreshments, music, and a talk by Tracee Glab, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Flint Institute of Arts.

"Common Ground celebrates the achievements and challenges of African American artists from the 1800s to today," says KIA Executive Director Belinda Tate. "It offers an exhilarating array of creativity and personal expression by some of the country's most important artists."

"The exhibition traces a journey through 150 years of cultural history, from the talent and determination of the earliest artists who overcame daunting social challenges, to internationally acclaimed work by leading contemporary artists," says Tate.

All of the museums involved share a history of working to diversify their holdings in American art, says Tate, adding, "This collaboration creates a context for the work that one of us alone could not offer."

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts started collecting African American art as early as 1970, and now owns almost 170. Several of the Common Ground artists were born or have worked in Michigan: Reginald Gammon, Joseph Grey, Richard Hunt, Hughie Lee-Smith, Charles McGee, Senghor Reid, George Thomas, and James Marcellus Watkins.

Common Ground is divided into five thematic areas that organize the exhibition chronologically: Gaining Access, New Self-Awareness, Political and Social Expressions, Examining Identities, and Towards Abstraction.

"The themes of Common Ground mirror the path of change that African American art has taken in the last 200 years," says Vicki Wright, KIA Director of Exhibitions and Collections. "In the 1800s, black artists like Robert S. Duncanson and Henry O. Tanner conquered the challenges of being accepted as professional artists. During the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century, James Van Der Zee, Lois Mailou Jones, and Jacob Lawrence helped shape a new artistic identity in their modern images of African Americans."

"Later in the 20th century, Elizabeth Catlett, Gordon Parks, and Charles White were among the artists whose art was imbued with social commentary on issues of race, poverty, segregation, and social injustice," adds Wright. "More recently, Willie Birch, Renee Stout, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley examine African American identity within contemporary society. And finally, the urge to express an artistic vision through the language of abstraction is seen in the works of Chakaia Booker, Richard Hunt, and Willie Cole."

Common Ground premiered at the Flint Institute of Arts earlier this year. Following its presentation at the KIA, it will be on view at the Muskegon Museum of Art, December 10-March 16, 2016. Stryker and Miller Canfield are the Kalamazoo sponsors for the exhibition, which closes November 15.

Exhibition programs:

  • Tuesday, August 18, ARTbreak, noon: Film, Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Free.
  • Friday, August 21: Everyone's a Member Day, 11 am - 8 pm. Free admission, Gallery Shop discounts, and $20 off one fall art class (with on-site registration).
  • Friday, August 21: Exhibition preview and reception, 5:30 - 8 pm, with a talk at 6:30 pm by Tracee Glab, Flint Institute of Arts Curator of Collections and Exhibitions. Free.
  • Thursday, August 27, 6:30 pm: Exhibition gallery tour. Included with admission.
  • Thursday, September 3, 6:30 pm: Film, Half Past Autumn, about photographer Gordon Parks. Included with admission.
  • Tuesday, September 8, ARTbreak, noon: Film, Benny Andrews: Visible Man. Free.
  • Friday, September 11, Art Hop, 5-8 pm: Free exhibition admission, plus a Girls Can! Collaborative open house featuring ten area organizations including the Merze Tate Travel Club, Girl Scouts, YWCA TechGYRLS, and Girls on the Run. Each will offer art activities and information for girls 8-16 and their families.
  • Thursday, September 17, 6:30 pm: Film, Through a Lens Darkly, about the African American image in photography. Free.
  • Tuesday, September 29, ARTbreak, noon: Films, Stories, about artist Kara Walker, and Structures, about artist Fred Wilson. Free.
  • Thursday, October 15, noon: Get the Picture! Curator of Education Michelle Stempien with an in-depth look at Under a Blood Red Sky by Faith Ringgold. Included with admission.
  • Wednesday, October 21, 2 pm: Book discussion, The House Girl, a novel by Tara Conklin, about a slave who might be the real genius behind a renowned Southern painter. Free.
  • Thursday, October 22, 6:30 pm: Theatrical readings written by Dwandra Lampkin, WMU Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, and performed by Lampkin, Marissa Harrington, Bianca Washington, and Von Washington, Jr. Included with admission.
  • Tuesday, October 27, ARTbreak, noon: Film, Jacob Lawrence: The Glory of Expression. Free.

Additional background
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts' first work of African American art was by Richard Hunt, purchased in the early 1970s. Further acquisitions through the 1990s include work by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Kara Walker. Around 2000, the KIA began a concerted effort to add to this part of its collection, with the added goal to create a traveling exhibition to share with schools, libraries, and community centers throughout the state. This endeavor was supported with funds from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, local foundations, and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. The result was Memory, Struggle, Affirmation: Expressions of the African American Artist, an exhibition that premiered in 2002 and subsequently traveled to other Michigan venues. Gifts from several local patrons have supported the purchase of works by Robert S. Duncanson, Henry O. Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, and Edmonia Lewis. Today, the KIA's collection of African American art numbers almost 170 works.

The five thematic areas of Common Ground provide an overview of the history of African American art and artists. Gaining Access represents the late 19th to the early 20th century, when poverty and institutional racism made it extremely difficult for African Americans to pursue creative professions. On view are works by Joshua Johnson and Henry Ossawa Tanner. A few decades later, African Americans gradually gained formal access to the world of fine arts through acceptance into prestigious schools, where they could study with renowned American artists.

Next, New Self-Awareness focuses on the early 20th century, when African American artists began to form their own artistic identity. Work by artists during the period of the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1937) demonstrates an awakening of a black consciousness. Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews, and Hughie Lee-Smith are just some who created new and modern images of African Americans with depictions of their daily lives.

In Political and Social Expressions and Examining Identities, respectively, the art on view deals with overcoming injustice and gaining equality in the late 20th and into the 21st century. Responding to the struggle for Civil Rights, African American artists created works that commented on political and social concerns: racism, poverty, segregation, and social injustice. Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, and Vincent Smith are included in this section.

Section five, Towards Abstraction, features international contemporary artists like Chakaia Booker, Willie Cole, and Richard Hunt.

Common Ground 2015 72dpi