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From the Vault: Honoring African-American History

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Untitled No. 29, 1986 by Joe Grant, mixed media: wood, metal, pigment — Acquisitions Fund.

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

February is African-American History Month, so I thought it would be an appropriate time to highlight some of the works in our collection that were made by black artists. However, the Roswell Museum does not categorize artists by race in the database (and rightly so), but that did make my task a little harder. Fortunately, when I turned to our archives, I found a mention of a multicultural exhibit that we mounted in the early 1990s, which showcased our collection of African-American art. To my surprise, just five artists were included — four men and one woman. There may be others in our collection, and I hope there are, but until I can find them, I would like to share with you five great African-American artists.

The best known of these artists is probably Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), who learned to paint in Harlem in the 1930s, absorbing all the color and energy of the Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming of African-American arts and culture. His talent was recognized early, and in 1941, he became the first African-American artist to be represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In terms of subject matter, Lawrence generally focused on the lives of ordinary African-American people and their history, but rather than choosing a super realistic style, his work was flat and somewhat abstracted. Near the end of his life, he explained why he preferred a simpler style: “… for me, a painting should have three things: universality, clarity and strength. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good; universality so that it may be understood by all men.”

The next artist, Shirley Stark (1927-2006), was a sculptor and poet. She made a name for herself in Taos, which drew the attention of a former curator of the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Eight of her abstract basalt sculptures were included in our 1974 Fall Invitational show, and one of them eventually entered our collection. When it came to her racial identity and work, Stark was a bit frustrated. She had left Detroit originally because of the “static” she got on whether her work was “white” or “black.” “For some, it wasn’t ‘black enough.’ Hopefully, the first thing should be that I’m making art. And in order to make art (if it is that), I believe it must transcend race. It must not limit itself. It must be universal,” she said.

Yet, while Lawrence and Stark were thinking about universality, other artists went in the opposite direction. James Watkins (born in 1951) is a ceramic artist from Texas whose work was collected by the White House in 1993. He grew up on a rural farm in Alabama and has spent decades making ceramic works that look like his mother’s old cast iron cauldron that she used constantly on the farm. His works are often highly textured, monochromatic, stand on tripod feet, and have some kind of solid decoration on the rim. The piece in our collection was bought by a local woman after Watkins gave a ceramics workshop at the museum in 1998.

Two other African-American artists came to Roswell for the Artist-in-Residence program. Joe Edward Grant (born in 1940) was here from 1986-1987. He is a mixed media artist, making art with found objects like window frames and corrugated metal scraps. These objects, he argued, no longer fulfilled their original function and had died. By reusing them, Grant gave them new life. His architectural constructions are playful and ironic, featuring windows of concrete, doors that don’t go anywhere and transparent walls. Grant’s work will be on view at the Roswell Museum starting in April as part of the “Virtue of Ownership” exhibition.

In 1987, Robert Colescott (1925-2009) also joined the Artist-in-Residence program here in Roswell. His paintings are deeply concerned with race and sexuality, and they often feature ugly, rubber-faced caricatures of African-American men and women as they have been portrayed in white media for decades, if not centuries. One of his works in our collection is called “The University Painter” and depicts a young white man sitting at an easel and painting. There is a nude black woman posing for him in his dorm room, and she is wearing a long, blonde wig to adhere to American beauty standards, but the man isn’t painting her; he is painting the landscape outside. Still, it seems that her nudity has distracted him since the peaceful scene he is painting does not reflect the flood that is visible outside the window. It’s a comic image, but Colescott deliberately used humor to draw a viewer’s attention and then make them think about the racial and sexual dynamics of the scene.

Ultimately, a celebration of African-American history and culture should not be relegated to one short month per year. That is why the Roswell Museum is currently partnering with the African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico, as well as the African-American Artist’s Guild to put together a couple of exhibitions throughout the year. The first is an exploration of African-American land ownership in New Mexico, including the town of Blackdom, just 20 miles south of Roswell. We are working to open that exhibit in April with some great music and a panel discussion featuring people whose family members lived in Blackdom. The second exhibit is not scheduled yet, but we are hoping to showcase some new work by up-and-coming African-American artists in New Mexico. So, keep an eye on the Roswell Museum (and join our Facebook page @rmacroswell) to see how we’ll be honoring African American history and culture all year long.