Tucked behind the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center is currently housing works ranging from ancient Mali to contemporary black art. Entitled “Looking Both Ways” the exhibit creates a lineage, sometimes cyclical, through black art spanning centuries in hopes of inspiring conversation about the current and past stages of black America.
The Center offers a library-like façade, an overhang guiding the museumgoer into an educational center. Rows of brochures stand inside, including a pamphlet for Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, a play I experienced this past summer with a chosen troupe of actors not diverse enough for the roles available. Considering the implications of underrepresentation and misrepresentation of people of color in the arts, the artists of “Looking Both Ways” address these disparities in a manner that pushes them to the forefront of their work.
Selections from Carrie Mae Weems’ print series From Here I Saw What Happened and Cried, confront the viewer from beneath blood red tints, mapping the removal of Africans from their history and into a narration based in degradation and parody. Seen through the lens of an African woman watching the formation of black culture in America, Weems stresses this process of becoming through subjugation between reverse images of the woman weeping, an expression of the continued devastation at the burying of a culture. Digital photography by Hank Willis Thomas, an artist interested in exposing a similar truth, is shown next to Weems. Enlarged to an image over 4 x 6 feet, The Cotton Bowl mirrors the figure of a hunched, African American picking cotton with a white American athlete. The photo splits the terrain between cotton and football field blacking out the background, leaving only the figures in their determined roles, one a renowned hero competing on refurbished grounds, which once enslaved his counter.
This attention to revealing under spoken narratives by the artists is echoed in the extended labels complimenting their works, linking the artists’ concentration in exploring identity within their pieces and society. While there is such emphasis on narration throughout the exhibit still museumgoers pondered over whether Kadir Nelson’s Barbershop, a painting honoring the Harlem Renaissance, was really just a painting of a son and a father, an adamant disregard of context. A harsh reality of the exhibit’s themes, the snub of a narrative praising a cultural highpoint in favor of a stereotypical paternal drama between two black men, only emphasizes the artists’ intentions to expose the roots of these inherent tendencies to belittle.
Moving throughout the galleries, relics from ancient Mali are removed from their usual glass casing and hung alongside contemporary paintings and mixed media works by Faith Ringgold, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Beverly Buchanan. A tie between African prominence and dilemmas and triumphs in black culture, Mali pieces can be seen as artworks rather than anthropological objects. Hand worked granary doors covered in irregular anthromorphic figures and wavy cut diagonals complement the Expressionist like harsh strokes of Beverly Buchanan’s oil pastel shacks. Executed in a vivid palette of yellows, reds, greens, and blues Buchanan’s lines cut across the paper of Cabins at State College (S.C.) in an attempt to mesh her memories of her childhood on State College’s campus with it’s current appearance.
The necessity to reconcile the past with present is a major influence in her work as she aims to portray her memories and the feelings associated with them rather than render naturalistic landscapes.
Woven pieces by Tamara Little, a self-taught artist based in Williamsburg, integrate past weaving practices with abstraction and stitching. Little asserts her cultural past in combination with her identity as a mother through her artistry, another removal from the glass cases these crafts took up in American museums.
The compulsion to resolve past and present is reverberated within a hallway of parallel photographs ascending to a contemporary spotlighted painting of Madonna and child. The photographs are taken from Daily Press archives capturing instances of the Civil Rights era. An image of a black women seated in the colored section of a restaurant hangs across a burned whites only diner. White students protesting school integration face the preacher of a black assembly in church. Martin Luther King Jr. signs autographs parallel to an iconic newspaper image of him as a man of peace. This back and forth between the walls begins to blur sides; which is the right side and which is the left, who is right and who is wrong. At the end of the hall hangs a painting from Clayton Singleton’s series Valedictorian of a mother and her child against a bright red background dotted by yellow circles. Tactfully placed behind the mother and child’s heads, the rings become halos praising the accomplishments of black youth. The entire series is dedicated to these admirations displaying pride against delicate backgrounds of butterflies and alluring shapes.
During my visit to the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, I overheard a mother ask her children to explain the narratives they were seeing. Instantly they found similarities in several pieces. No longer where these images of angry black rebels, but kids who were “sad” and “upset,” vulnerable emotions often absent in portrayals of black youth. “Looking Both Ways” provides a point of reflection for those currently existing in a society where we’re experiencing the long-term effects of the diaspora, slavery, and civil rights movements on how we identity others and creates an outlet for dignified representation in a gallery space.
Looking Both Ways
Peninsula Fine Arts Center
101 Museum Drive
Newport News, Virginia
Article by Amanda Acosta
Photography provided by the author and gallery