Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Painting the Blues

The Blues in New Orleans is played, sung. This month at the NOMA, "Beyond the Blues" is the title of the exhibition showing the paintings from the Amistad Research Center " specialized in the history of African-American and other minority ethnic groups".

One hundred and fifty works have been selected from a rich collection and are displayed in several rooms organized in five categories: Inhabiting our world, Believing in Divinity, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Living in the Moment and Seeing with Candor. I chose to wander from room to room and enjoy the paintings from known or unknown painters. I was discovering most of them.

The works cover more than 120 years from the late nineteenth century painters and early twentieth century like Edward Bannister and Ossawa Tanner who were exposed to European influence and studied there, to the painters from the "New Negro Movement" in the 20s and 30s followed by more modern painters like Vincent Smith from Brooklyn represented by "Annie Lou loves Bill" done in 1960. In this painting he mixes collage and graffiti on a rough red background. It was standing out among the other artists, most of them represented by non controversial subjects, depicting winter like Driskell with "Winter Landscape" 1974, "Triborough Bridge" from Aaron Douglas, "Carnival" from Keith Morrison 1966, with Caribbean colors.

Sam Middleton is the closest to Jazz, I thought, with his spontaneous colors, lines, movements, splashes, represented in "Still Life" 1970 and "Beyond the Blues".

For the women, Clementine Hunter, whose work is considered "Folk Art", was present in a corner. I found the sculpture "Target" from Elizabeth Catlett very powerful, with the bronze head of an Afro-American male in the sight of a gun.

Other painters were inspired by the naive style from Haiti, like Ellis Wilson with his famous "Funeral Procession", 1954.

The star of the show was Jacob Lawrence with his series on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Haiti's history.
Forty one paintings, gouache on paper, from Jacob Lawrence, a painter, story-teller. It made me think of the" images d'Epinal", the colors were darker with stylized shapes. Each painting is depicting a chapter of Haiti's history. In parallel, it tells the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture's life. He was the leader of the slaves revolt and eventually became a General. He was imprisoned by the French and died one year later of a "broken heart". A medley of cubism, naive art creates flat paintings using the color to create some perspective. The painter himself stated that the colors came from his childhood, Harlem where he was born and raised. He was 21 years old when he painted this series.

The revolt of the Amistadt is also depicted by Lawrence Jacob. My preferred version is from Romare Barden made from a mixture of collage and painting : a map of Africa, a boat and the face of an African slave with red, black and other bright colors.

Of course , two sons from New Orleans should be mentioned, Jeffrey Cook who went back to his African roots to create the sculpture called "Dogon Box" 1996 inspired by the sculptures from Mali, and John Scott (1940-2007) with "Closest to Blues and Jazz". He made this statement:"what I have been trying to my art is make a piece that would be similar to what African-American musicians have done with gospels, and blues and jazz, so that when you hear it , it wraps around your soul."

photograph NOMA from the author

General Toussaint L'Ouverture:

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