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Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South

March 16 through April 25, 2004


Included in the exhibition Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South are over 60 paintings, drawings, sculptures and assemblages, most dating from the late 1980s or the 1990s, by 27 self-taught African American artists from southern states such as Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi. Amongst the artists are members of the Alabama Dial family, centered around Thornton Dial, Sr., whose works have been featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial in 2000. Artworks by two of Dial's sons, his brother, and a cousin, the late Ronald Lockett, are also included in the exhibition.

All the works are from the holdings of New York collectors Ronald and June Shelp. The Shelps were both educated in the South during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and their collecting, which began in the 1960s, reflects their identification with that era and place. Mr. Shelp, who is a trustee of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, will be on campus on Tuesday, March 23, for an informal gallery discussion (at 7:00 p.m. in the Museum). In addition, artist "Missionary" Mary Proctor will be on campus for an informal discussion of her art and its proselytizing intent. Proctor, who will speak in the Museum at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 1, tells that she began creating art in response to a vision from God following a lengthy grieving process after the tragic death of her grandmother (who had raised Proctor) in a house fire in 1994.

The exhibition is organized around six themes: Witness to History, Biblical Scenes, Iconic Human Figures, Spiritual Messages, Observation and Decoration, and Allegorical Animals. In addition to this thematic categorization, the exhibition more generally considers the emotionally charged, complex artworks in terms of their relationship to mainstream modernism on the one hand and "folk" or "outsider" art on the other (those somewhat derogatory terms substituted by the less marginalizing "Vernacular" of the exhibit's title).

Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., featuring essays by noted scholars Kinshasha Conwill, Arthur C. Danto, Edmund Barry Gaither, Grey Gundaker, and Judith M. McWillie. Copies of the catalogue will be available for consultation in the Museum and for sale in the Book Mark on campus. A checklist of the works will also be available, without charge, at the exhibition.

This exhibition was organized by Exhibitions International, NY and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Exhibitions International, NY is circulating the national tour of the exhibition. Its appearance at the Hillstrom Museum of Art, the only academic venue of the tour, is being funded by The Carl & Verna Schmidt Foundation, the Pearson Art Foundation, the Gustavus Artist Series, and the Diversity Center of Gustavus Adolphus College.


Following is an article which appeared in the College's Quarterly by Donald Myers

Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South will open on March 16, 2004, with a reception that evening from 7:00 to 9:00. The exhibition was organized and is circulated by Exhibitions International, New York. Howard Dodson, Director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library, is the curator of the exhibit, which features works by 27 mostly self-taught African-American artists from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The exhibition has been drawn from the extensive collection of Ronald and June Shelp, and considers the emotionally charged, aesthetically powerful, culturally complex artworks in terms of their relationship to mainstream modernism on the one hand, and "folk" or "outsider" art on the other.

The exhibition is arranged around six themes that are frequently encountered in the works of the artists. The first of these, "Witness to History," reflects the artists' concern about current events and conditions, especially as they affect African-Americans. Thornton Dial, Jr.'s Mississippi Burning (see illustration) is an example. Based on the murders of four young civil rights volunteers in 1964, events that were explored in the 1988 film of the same name, the mixed-media painting also calls to mind the torching of several Southern churches by white supremacists in 1989, the year it was created.

Other themes essayed in the exhibition are "Biblical Scenes," "Iconic Human Figures," "Spiritual Messages," "Observation and Decoration," and "Allegorical Animals." The last of these can be seen in Thornton Dial, Sr.'s Alone in the Jungle: One Man Sees the Tiger Cat (see illustration), which features a monumental tiger created out of paint and rope carpet. The tiger is a recurring motif in Dial's art, a kind of alter ego that refers to the struggle of African Americans in the "new jungle" (to quote the exhibition's catalogue). The use of animals in such an allegorical manner is frequent in the works of the artists in the exhibition, and relates to various traditions in African-American culture. These include quilt motifs, heraldic animals in African art, and the Southern storytelling traditions of animal fables such as Uncle Remus tales, in which the animal imagery communicated to both African-American and white listeners, though often in different ways.

Dial (born 1928) is a prolific artist who for over thirty years was a steel worker, before devoting himself full-time to art in the late 1980s. He is the most noted in a family of artists hailing from Alabama, and he has become more recognized by the mainstream art world than others in the exhibition. Dial has been the subject of monographic studies and solo exhibitions, including at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of American Folk Art, both in New York, and his work was featured in the prestigious Biennial exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2000. The recurring Biennial presents a picture of the vitality of the contemporary art world by exhibiting the best and most interesting artists nationally. Other members of Dial's family represented in Testimony include his sons Thornton, Jr. (born 1953) and Richard (born 1955), a half brother, Arthur Dial (born 1930), and a cousin, Ronald Locket (1965-1998).

Another artist in the exhibition, Leroy Almon (1938-1997), is known for his low-relief, painted carvings in wood, such as The Black Madonna (see illustration). Almon learned carving in Columbus, Ohio, from a fellow parishioner in their Baptist church. Almon returned to his native Georgia in 1982, where he not only worked at his art, but also became an ordained minister and an evangelist, and worked as a police dispatcher to support his family. The Black Madonna, part of the exhibition's "Biblical Scenes" section, is typical of Almon's work. It is a direct and immediate image, unabashedly religious and proselytizing in content, and intended to personalize the African-American religious experience.

The appearance of Testimony at the Hillstrom Museum of Art -- the sole academic venue in a tour that also includes the Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, South Carolina, and the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia, among others -- is supported by a generous grant from Gerald "Bud" Pearson, the Gustavus Artist Series, and by the College's Diversity Center. It will be on view during the Diversity Center's 9th annual Building Bridges Conference, March 19-20, 2004. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue featuring essays by prominent scholars in the field, including Kinshasha Conwill, Director Emeritus of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and noted art critic Arthur Danto, Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Columbia University. Offered by the art publishing firm Harry N. Abrams, the catalogue will be available for sale through the Book Mark, and copies will be accessible for consultation in the exhibition.

Donald Myers, Director, Hillstrom Museum of Art


Folowing is information regarding the national tour of the exhibition:

Organized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and by Exhibitions International, New York. Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South opened at the Columbia Museum of Art on January 12, 2002. The exhibition was presented in New York at the AXA Gallery from May 3rd through July 13th, 2002. Encompassing more than 70 works of art, the exhibition is drawn in its entirety from the collection of Ronald and June Shelp, one of the world's outstanding holdings of present-day work by self-taught, Southern African-American artists.

Among the artists represented in the exhibition are Lonnie Holley, creator of a celebrated sculptural environment at his home in Birmingham, Alabama; James "Son" Thomas of Mississippi, famous both as a blues musician and an artist; Bessie Harvey of Tennessee, whose sculptures were included in the 1995 Whitney Biennial; Archie Byron, who has been successful in Atlanta not only as an artist but as an entrepreneur and political leader; and several member of Alabama's extraordinary Dial family, led by Thornton Dial, Sr., affording a survey of the relations within this Alabama dynasty of artists.

According to Howard Dodson, Chief of the Schomburg Center, "Most African-Americans are descended from people who lived in the South," Mr. Dodson notes, "It's where we come from, the roots. And yet the conventional interpretation of the African-American experience has tended to elevate to the status of heroism those individuals who left the South and moved North. What of those who decided to stay, who chose to claim that part of America as their own? They are worthy of as much celebration, understanding, and appreciation as those who were the scouts. By exhibiting the remarkable artworks in Testimony, we hope to affirm the continuing integrity of those individuals who struggled with the contradictions of the South and made of the South a very different place from what it had been. By paying tribute to their courage-their commitment to family and community, their experience in understanding the overall African-American experience."

"This exhibition shows how the creative impulse is inherent in the human experience," Howard Dodson says. "No matter how much oppression and exploitation people undergo, that creative impulse will find a way to emerge through song, through dance, through religion, through art. Again, if you look at the trajectory of African-American visual arts, the individuals who were recognized were those who migrated to the North. But there were many others who stood their ground and fashioned art out of the resources-and indeed lack of resources-of the South, and they, too, need to be understood and appreciated and made accessible to the public."

The Shelps began to form their collection in the wake of a meeting with art collector and art dealer Bill Arnett in June 1988. Through Arnett, they acquired their first works in this genre in March 1989: 40 pieces by 20 artists. As their passion for these artworks grew, so did the collection, some of which was installed in the offices of the New York City Partnership, of which Mr. Shelp was the President and Chief Executive Officer. After Mr. Shelp left the Partnership in 1993, he and his wife continued to collect avidly; they have donated major pieces to the Hirshhorn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of American Folk Art, and the Newark Museum.

According to Ronald Shelp, who with his wife June assembled the collection from which the exhibition is selected, "We were drawn to this art because we feel it is dramatic, moving, and wide-ranging. You find everything in it from tough, forceful portraits and icons to symbolic narratives to subtle abstractions. But, equally important, this art has a message that speaks to June and me, as Southerners. Even the most abstract of these works tells us something about what the world looks like through the eyes of people who grew up in the segregated South and lived through the civil rights movements and the turbulent times that followed."

The exhibition is organized around six themes:

(1) Witness to history is seen in works depicting house burnings and assassinations, the homeless, the hungry, the needy, and the migrant. Such subjects reflect intense concern about current events and conditions and also an awareness of didactic mainstream art since the 1960s, when public expression (murals, posters), especially by urban African-American and other minority artists, addressed racial issues and received wide media coverage.

(2) Allegorical animals provide veiled socio-political commentaries and personifications of the artist. In the older Southern storytelling tradition of animal fables, such images communicate to both African-American and white audiences, though often in opposite ways. Some animals may be decorative only, but the self-identification with heraldic animals also descends from African cultures, and it has local folkloric and private meanings as well.

(3) Biblical scenes, from Genesis to the life of Christ, speak of the artists' response to Southern church practices, including those of evangelical Christianity; their self-association with Biblical personages; their interest in narrative scenes of heated emotion and moral and physical conflict; their access to art reproductions; and their artistic influence on one another. This section of Testimony sheds special light on the definitions of "self-taught."

(4) Iconic human figures are overt self-portraits or sublimated identifications with faces and motifs of power and freedom. In single or paired figures, artists see universal experiences such as motherhood through an African-American lens, sometimes commenting on current socio-economic conditions. Such works embody both the legacy of self-expression descending from Romantic art and the encouragement to racial identity fostered by African-American political activity since the '60s.

(5) Spiritual messages are conveyed through found objects transformed into totemic assemblages, tabletop-sized objects, or large reliefs. Roots and branches become animals and figures associated with healing or punitive power. Deriving from the "yard shows" common in the rural South and elsewhere, these sculptures descend from Kongo protective devices and voodoo carvings and have won mainstream interest through their formal and technical similarities to works by Robert Rauschenberg and Dada and Surrealist artists.

(6) Observation and decoration are the goals of works that portray everyday scenes, people, and animals. Displayed in homes inside and out and originally given or sold to relatives and neighbors, such works were mediums of exchange and displayed their makers' imitative and ornamental skills to the neighborhood. They reveal the vital communities where their artists live and work today.


The Schomburg Center

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library is recognized as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. The Harlem-based research library collects, preserves, and provides access to information and resources essential for documenting the history and culture of people of African descent worldwide. The Center's collections number more than 5 million items, including more than 3.5 million manuscripts, 150,000 volumes, 20,000 artworks and artifacts, and 500,000 photographs. The Center also houses rich collections of periodicals, films, videotapes, audio recordings, and memorabilia. Through its exhibitions, education programs and public events, the Center seeks to foster an understanding of significant issues and themes of the global black experience.


Exhibitions International

Exhibitions International, a non-profit traveling exhibition service for museums, organizes and circulates art exhibitions on a wide variety of subjects, with a focus on the decorative arts and design. Its mission, to organize exhibitions of high aesthetic quality that respond to the needs of museums, is fulfilled with the guidance of an Advisory Council, an international roster of museum directors and curators, which reviews all potential exhibitions. To serve the educational needs of museums, a variety of educational materials are developed to accompany each exhibition.


About the Hillstrom Museum of Art

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