"Remembering Their Homeland: The Legacy of One Virginia Family" at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center is a documentary exhibition that lives in the mind long after the visit to see the work is over. Curated by Eileen Mott of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the selection of 10 paintings by Rick Hyman (with three added by the Black History Museum) interprets a historical legacy that few descendents would steward with such transcendence. The exhibition, along with the book "My Texas Family," compiled by Hyman and his wife, Rhonda, accompanies and explains the pictorial story of Hyman's great-grandfather, Henderson Martin, and his extended family. The family made their way from slavery to affluence in one generation through hard work, vigilance and a bit of good fortune when the land they had purchased and cultivated produced oil.
In 1983, Hyman discovered a stash of more than 300 photographs of his ancestors who had migrated from Amelia County to Texas following emancipation. Taken with an early-model view camera from 1912 to 1927 by his great aunt Cornelius Martin, these remarkable photos describe a family community enjoying the success of their circumstances. Hyman recognized the rarity and consequence of his aunt's photographs and was inspired to begin the process of painting on canvas some of the domestic scenes that she recorded with her camera. Although they are not on display in the gallery, these important photographs are reproduced in the labels and in the Hymans' book, and should not be overlooked when visiting the show. For Hyman's best paintings are, in essence, collaborations with this progressive woman, an artist in her own right. The Hymans' book also offers transcripts of a comprehensive series of conversations conducted with Rick's elders who, having lived for nearly a century, narrate the family's story from their own vivid recollections. A case of antique costume jewelry that belonged to various members of the family is also on display.
Hyman's paintings are vibrantly colored and painted in the natural, impartial style of the self-taught artist. In his paintings he has taken his cue from the semiprecious stones in the family's estate jewelry to add glorious, non-local color to the summer whites of the ladies and the hard, dry hue of the Texas landscape. His wonderful trees have the ebullient quality of animation. The Model T Ford, a possession that appears in many of the photographic images Hyman chose to reproduce, looms splendidly behind the family members. It is always wholly depicted in Hyman's paintings rather than being a subtle but telling trace element in the backgrounds that his aunt composed for her photographs. The Model T is no insignificant object and deserves Hyman's full emphasis. It is a huge metaphor, representing an evolving manifestation of freedom not just of mobility, but of equality, status, civility and courage in a time when some members of the local white population could be envious, unpredictable and occasionally malevolent in regarding any outstanding success of their black neighbors.
Hyman's paintings such as "Women in the Field," "Henderson Martin," "An American Legend" and "Southern Gentlemen" strike me as his most eloquent works. These are the most solid, massive, refined compositions, while keeping their innocent quality, and they resound with the ample impression of vigor and majesty. When Hyman gives his figures the kind of volume that those works possess, they come to life most effectively. Other compelling stylistic aspects of his paintings are the white knuckles and intensely lit eyes that he gives to all his subjects. The eyes are uniform and perpetual in their shape and piercing gaze. It is as though they are an inherited characteristic, one that also acknowledges each member's individual role as participant and witness, and identifies, along with their determined knuckles, the resolute spirit within.
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