SPOTLIGHT: Gordon Parks

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American Photographer Gordon Parks has been called “the most important black photographer in the history of photojournalism” – the man who taught himself how to take pictures at the age of twenty-five with a Voigtländer Brillant that he purchased at a pawn shop.

In 1948, after a stint with the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) covering the nation’s social conditions, he garnered attention with his photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader that won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine – where he stayed for two decades. Parks work captures some of the most iconic moments in American Culture from the early 1940’s up until his death in 2006.  As a humanitarian, he seemed most passionate about capturing the nation in its moments of social upheaval with an air of timelessness. His lens so often found the dignity and pride of the people whose portraits accompanied these stories.

Parks was multi-faceted man – he was also a humanitarian, a musician, a film director, and a writer. “He spent much of the last three decades of his life expanding his style, conducting experiments with color photography. He continued working up until his death in 2006, winning numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and over fifty honorary doctorates. He was also a noted composer and author, and in 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. This was followed in 1971 by the hugely successful motion picture Shaft. The core of his accomplishment, however, remains his photography the scope, quality, and enduring national significance of which is reflected throughout the Collection. According to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Center at Harvard University, “Gordon Parks is the most important black photographer in the history of photojournalism. Long after the events that he photographed have been forgotten, his images will remain with us, testaments to the genius of his art, transcending time, place and subject matter.”**

You can become better acquainted with his legacy of work at The Gordon Parks Foundation.

*Come follow us on Twitter today (@hahamag #spotlight) as we tweet links to Gordon Park’s work online.

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*images courtesy of Time Magazine. **quote from Biography of Parks at Gates Foundation website.

SPOTLIGHT: Kehinde Wiley

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American Artist, Kehinde Wiley, 37 was born in California. His father is Yoruba from Nigeria and his mother is African-American. He’s studied art in Russia, earned his BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and got his MFA from Yale University.

Wiley’s work is a colorful blend of traditional and contemporary roots seen in his trademark over sized portraits where young men of color, posed in their street clothes are fixed into grandiose backgrounds that suit them as if they were royalty. Initially his portraits were based on the photographs of young men in Harlem, now he has firmly situated himself as the painter known to travel to urban places in Israel, Africa, Brazil and India to find his next subject.

These portrayals inspire people to throw out phrases like ‘crossing boundaries’, and ‘breaking down barriers’ when they refer to his art. In the last six years or so, Wiley has become a highly sought after painter – with a style I like to refer to as ‘arthouse rebel rousing’.  At the forefront of this modern takeover is his artistic desire to make art that continues to carry on a discourse for people of color, “I think it’s important for African-American kids to see pictures of people who look like them on museum walls”, says Kehinde.

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“I think one of the things that must happen in the work is for it to become class-conscious. You’ll never be able to exist within this marketplace without recognizing that paintings are perhaps the most expensive objects in the art world. It’s not going to change anyone’s life. But what it does function as is a catalyst for a different way of thinking. The very act of walking into the Los Angeles County Museum and seeing Kerry James Marshall as a kid gave me a sense of, Damn, maybe I can do this. And, so, symbols matter. One of my interests is in having the work in as many public collections as possible. When I go to the Brooklyn Museum or the Metropolitan Museum and see my stuff, I’m aware that there are other young kids who don’t have access to anything like it.”

—quote pulled from Meghan O’Rourke’s interview with Kehinde Wiley in WSJ

*Come follow us on Twitter today (@hahamag #spotlight) as we tweet links to Wiley’s work online.

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SPOTLIGHT: The Problem We All Live With

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We continue our Black History Month series with a look at Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With…I’ve heard it said that Norman Rockwell was safe because he strayed away from depicting any direct social commentary in his work. Then what were all those paintings of ‘life americana’ that I remember growing up seeing in my mom’s art books supposed to be saying to me?

And how could you ignore his painting of six year old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school admist the chaos of protestors that didn’t agree with the United States Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared the state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

In 1963, Rockwell confronted the issue of prejudice head-on with one of his most powerful paintings—arguably it’s been seen as the single most important image ever done of an African-American in illustration history.

At the time editorial policies governed the placement of minorities in his illustrations (restricting them to service industry positions only). The painting was a clear indicator that Rockwell was supporting equality and tolerance.

*“The Problem We All Live With,” Norman Rockwell, 1963 Oil on canvas, 36” x 58” Illustration for “Look,” January 14, 1964 Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum*

SPOTLIGHT: KARA WALKER

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Kara Walker is an American Artist known for her bold exploration into race, culture and gender and identity issues. You might not have remembered her name, but surely I can recall you to her work once I show you those explosive black silhouettes resembling paper cut-outs that she’s most known for.

Born in 1969, Walker attended the Rhode Island School of Design and has gone on to showcase her work in some of the finest museums around: MOMA, SFMOMA, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, just to name a few.

In 2007, Walker was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. In the article, fellow artist Barbara Kruger summed up Walker’s work amazingly with this quote. “Walker’s vigilance has produced a compelling reckoning with the twisted trajectories of race in America. Her installations and films forcefully pluralize our notion of a singular “history.” They create a profusion of back stories and revisions that slash and burn through the pieties of patriotism and the glosses of “color blindness.” Restarting the engines of seemingly archaic methods, from the graphic affect of silhouette portraits to the machine-age ethos of film, she produces a cast of characters and caricatures with appetites for destruction and reproduction, for power and sex.”

I just don’t think there’s much to say after that…other than to direct you to some resources in order to learn more about her work:

Kara Walker on ART21

MOMA conversation with Kara Walker

Whitney retrospective of Walker’s work

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Spotlight: Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist who rode high in the eighties New York Art Scene. His career in art began on the streets as a graffiti artist. Under the pseudonym SAMO he’d leave political-poetical messages impregnated on city walls… ‘Plush safe he think’… ‘SAMO as an alternative to the bourgeois.’ In less than a decade he was an international art star. His paintings often described as childlike, dealt with human anatomy, dense imagery and text, and his African-American heritage. You might find that Jean-Michel is more commonly talked of in the context of celebrity than artistically; his friendships/relationships with Warhol and Madonna continue to be critiqued in the vortex of pop culture phenomena.

With his crowning of trademark dreadlocks, Basquiat was a regular downtown fixture. His genius trapped in a burgeoning art movement set on ‘crazed’ did nothing to help slow down the excesses he became victim of. At the age of twenty-seven he was dead of a drug overdose in his Great Jones loft…the radiant child had left his canvassed works behind screaming at the world, their many faces torturing and riveting are not unlike his legacy.

“He disrupted the politics of the art world and insisted that if he had to play their games, he would make the rules. His images entered the dreams and museums of the exploiters, and the world would never be the same.” – Keith Haring

Enjoy these great links to more information on the life of Basquiat

  • For a closer look at Basquiat works currently in circulation and editorial imprints from those still inspired by the Radiant Child, try Artsy’s resource.
  • Use this link to read ‘The Radiant Child’, Rene Ricard’s 1981 Artforum article that launched Basquiat onto the artworld. http://ow.ly/1s4w1O
  • Got Netflix? Basquiat: The Radiant Child is showing on Instant Watch. This Tamra Davis movie boasts never seen footage. http://ow.ly/1s4x7I
  • At Basquiat’s memorial, Fab 5 Freddy “interpolated” the poem ‘Genius Child’ by Langston Hughes. You can read it here. http://ow.ly/1s4y2J
  • For a page turning read on Jean-Michel & the 1980s art world, try ‘Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art’. http://ow.ly/1s4yqI

Spotlight: Kerry James Marshall

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Kerry James Marshall, a world-renowned African American artist, was born in Birmingham, AL in 1955. Needless to say he was born into a world of murder, turmoil, and sadness for African Americans everywhere. He has said in the past that it was impossible for his art not to have been influenced by his birthplace.

One of Mr. Marshall’s core beliefs is that “we all stand on the shoulders of giants.” Some of his greatest influences have been classic pieces of art, their structure and their subject matter. He developed this idea in his work and has applied many of these influences to creating his own Black masterpieces.

As Mr. Marshall would walk the hall of various museums, as he often does, he notices a striking difference between the busts of African heroes and the ones of Greco-Roman heroes. There was animation, aggressiveness, and heroism in those busts, while the African pieces were static, inert, and passive. Why couldn’t Black people be depicted as the Greco-Romans were?

From that idea came modeling his subjects as superheroes. Superheroes have been mostly White through the ages, and it was one of his ways of taking back power in Black imagery. The positive associations and feeling that superheroes engender were exactly what Mr. Marshall was seeking. Power, positivity, and heroism, long absent in representation.

For this idea, he hearkened back to his childhood and his love of superhero comic books. The irony that in this case, he stood on his own “shoulders” this time is very powerful, and he resurrected a long-dormant idea. There was power in blackness that had long been hidden, and questioned by the White world. He furthered this idea by depicting his figures as the blackest of black. This beautiful color was often highlighted by his colorful backgrounds. It was a lovely sight.

The other thing that struck this reporter about his art were his depictions of houses, all closed up from the outside, but inside, animated and warm. What went on behind the closed doors of Black folks? The maids, field hands, servants, slaves? What were their secret dreams and desires? To the rest of Caucasian America this was certainly a mystery. Exposing the secret yearnings and often sad and powerful world behind these doors is another goal of Mr. Marshall’s art. The overarching idea is that there is power and heroism in Blackness, and we need to spread the word.

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Spotlight: Thelma Golden

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As a black woman curator in an overwhelming white male art world, Golden has long fostered art that burns with racial and gender issues.” Joyce Corrigan, Artnet

Born in 1965 in Queens, New York, Golden is one of today’s most notable museum curator’s.

Golden’s childhood love of museums put her on the fast track to becoming a driving force in the art world. Her first hands-on training came as a senior in high school, when she trained as a curatorial apprentice at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She went on to earn a BA in Art History and African-American Studies from Smith College in 1987. Golden’s first curatorial position was at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1987. Then, in 1991, Thelma took a position at the Whitney Museum of American Art where she remained until 1999.

Golden has used her position to open up the museum to previously under-represented artists including women and people of color. Her notable exhibitions have created challenging dialogues within the art world.

Her most heralded contributions have been her 1993 Whitney Biennial collaboration. The Biennial took controversial look at America and tough social issues such as race, gender, sexuality, AIDS, and gay rights. Just a few years later there was Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, where 29 minority artists displayed works that illustrated the current conceptions of black masculinity. The artists were black men, such as Gary Simmons, and Lyle Ashton Harris; black women, such as Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and Renee Cox; and a few Asian, Hispanic, and white artists to provide a multitude of perspectives. The exhibition also incorporated film, video, and media and was accompanied by an extensive catalogue.

Currently, Golden is the director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And on the boards of Creative Time in New York and the Institute of International Visual Arts in London.

Thelma Golden …you rock!

Learn more about Thelma Golden at these great resources…
-The Black List Project
-TED (Ideas worth sharing) Thelma speaks on How Art gives shape to cultural change.

photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders