A landmark collection of African-American art tells a story through acute experiences. 

A Story Worth Retelling

The answer was a story in itself.

"My grandfather made his own household items," says David C. Driskell, a retired professor of art at the University of Maryland, recalling his earliest creative influences. "I particularly remember him braiding poplar bark into mats and harnesses and other necessities. They were beautiful objects and very likely an inherited tradition passed along in childhood from his [native African] family."

Storytelling has been the purpose of much art throughout civilization, and an integral part of the culture of Africa and its dispersed peoples. "Narratives of African American Art and Identity," the comprehensive collection of American artists of color assembled by Driskell and curated by Juanita Holland of the University of Maryland, examines that tradition.

This remarkable narrative begins with Driskell, an inspiring, unpretentious man with many distinguished achievements within the disciplines of art. He is an artist and teacher, a scholar, a philanthropist and a visionary caretaker of his culture, collecting and interpreting its creative contributions.

He started small by acquiring works of art that appealed to him. He grew up in an environment woven with creativity: His grandfather's skills, along with his father's work as a blacksmith and woodworker, helped refine his sense of design. Driskell earned a B.A. in fine art from Howard University and an M.F.A. from Catholic University. During that time, he encountered mentors who would introduce him to and encourage him in his own art, and in remembering the art of others, many of whom were actively becoming central characters of the narrative. From the passionate activism of the New Negro Movement — which evolved into the Harlem Renaissance — artists of color were changing history. Their personal experiences combined with the music and politics of the time resulted in powerful content and innovative styles.

Driskell's collection starts at the beginning. "Stories Unfolding," the first room of the exhibit, offers several early 19th-century works by African-American artists. This room could be any 19th-century gallery in any small museum. The scenes are pastoral, decorative, idyllic and typically housed in the regulation gold-leaf frame of the small Romantic painting. They reveal how pervasive and confined that century's aesthetic was, but they effectively dislodge any image one might have of who was painting what in that era of starched whites.

Nonetheless, Edward Bannister manages to slip away from the norm to paint a luminous landscape of a pond at dusk that expresses much more freedom than the period's standard. This room also houses a Robert Scott Duncanson (one of Dr. Driskell's favorite paintings because of its quality of light), a poignant Meta Warrick Fuller bronze "Pieta" and a Henry O. Tanner etching, "Gate at Tangier." All of them impress on the viewer the realization of how internationally trained and accomplished a few early black artists were by the beginning of the 20th century.

Each of the four remaining stages of the exhibition explores the personal development of the Driskell collection alongside the growth of America's conscience. "Emerging Identities" considers the sense of identity that artists of color began to explore. James VanDer Zee escorts the visitor from the first room into the second with his documentary photographs of life at the turn of the century. Inventing and modernizing a kind of visual spiritual, he describes the time as one with some hardship, tender pathos and an abiding joy.

These qualities are also shared by Aaron Douglas in his complex overlaying of historic imagery. This section of the exhibit is the most transcendent and hopeful, usually endowing the portrait of the black American with grace and strength of character. As for the artistic character that is taking shape through many of these artists, it seems that the artist of color is essentially providing mid-century America with its specific aesthetic. Presiding over the theater of events are Richmond Barthe's bronze and ceramic busts of young men. They are wrenchingly beautiful and knowing, and they radiate an unsentimental balance of vulnerability and invincibility.

"The Black Academy" area continues to progress through the mid-20th century and emphasizes the collegial aspect of the Driskell collection and the mentorship from which the genius of his lifework sprang. There are some really wonderful prints in here: lithographs by Romare Bearden and Charles White, linocuts by James Lesesne Wells and Elizabeth Catlett, a wood engraving by Wilmer Jennings. But while the works by these important names may be personal and diaristic, and essential to the purpose of the show, the selection of diverse paintings in this room seems incongruous like the corner where the wallpaper job begins and ends.

If the wallpaper is pieced in the previous area, it is lined up squarely in the "Radical Politics" gallery. Several of the same artists from "The Black Academy" are displayed, but this time with their fiercer works. They are joined by Melvin Edwards, whose steel-and-iron wall hanging from his "Lynch Fragment Series" menacingly reminds the viewer of the horrors of slavery.

Driskell's own painting "Behold Thy Son" chronicles the murder of Mississippi youth Emmett Till, who was beaten and lynched in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. The 1956 painting is a Byzantine depiction of Christ on the cross with Till's mother's arms supporting his forsaken body. The brutal prejudice that instigated this abstracted but vivid scene still cautions acutely from within.

For Driskell it was a cathartic piece. "I got social commentary out of my system with the completion of that painting," he says. "It was an early work. Afterward, I became concerned with finding elements of beauty and expressions of spiritual content in art."

As the visitor gazes around this gallery a distinct pattern reveals itself. The works emphasize a repeating halo reference: from a Bearden collage depicting Jesus comforting a lamb in a distressed storefront to Elizabeth Catlett's sharecropper's sun hat.

The final chapter of the narrative, "Moving Beyond Borders," leaves behind a political agenda to delve into the techniques, fascinations and architecture of art making. The selections are rich and engaging, as well as intimate in nature.

The story told by Driskell's encyclopedic collection of artwork indicates that African-American art is made by artists of many differing backgrounds who experience their world acutely and translate it through personal sensibility. That isn't a great departure from any other art making; it is simply that it was a story which, because it hadn't been heard sufficiently, needed a good telling by someone who knew the

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