In 1903 the educator and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that African-Americans live two lives, within and without the "veil" -- a kind of cultural blinder that allows them to define themselves only in relation to the larger white culture in which they live. The title of the exhibit currently on view at Rollins College's Cornell Fine Arts Museum is a reference to this sense of second sight. "Beyond the Veil: The Art of African-American Artists at Century's End" is an incredible collection of works from 21 of the most prominent living African-American artists of the 20th century.
The museum is displaying the works in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. "The festival was why I was asked to put together the exhibit," says guest curator Mary Jane Hewitt. "But I also wanted to try and answer a question." That question, she explains, arose from Du Bois' concept of the veil. "`The artists'` skin color was an irritant," says Hewitt, "but irritants can create great art. I wondered if you could see this veil, and if it affected their work."
The artists in the exhibition who were born just before or during World War I include Hughie Lee-Smith, Eldzier Cortor, Elizabeth Catlett, Gordon Parks and Jacob Lawrence. Parks and Lawrence are probably the most famous of the group, with painter Lawrence considered one of the true giants of the century. Both men benefited greatly from the Federal Arts Program (FAP) of the Works Project Administration, a New Deal program designed to put people, including artists, back to work after the Great Depression.
Lawrence wasn't admitted to the FAP until he turned 18 in 1935. Once accepted, he began creating a series of paintings on Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. He is best known for the 60-panel "The Migration of the Negro Series," which he completed by age 24. Lawrence's rugged, somewhat abstract figures dominate his two works included in this exhibit, 1994's "Supermarket Periodicals" and 1980's "Images of Labor."
Parks began his lifelong career photographing the downtrodden after seeing a magazine with Farm Security Administration photographs. He went on to do stunning work for Life magazine, and he's also an accomplished painter and filmmaker, perhaps most well known for directing the classic early '70s blaxploitation films "Shaft" and "Shaft's Big Score" in 1971 and 1972. This exhibit includes three of his serene prints of icebergs and foliage.
Cultural identity holds varying prominence for the younger artists in the exhibit. For John Biggers and Betye Saar, for example, their blackness is largely inseparable from their work. Biggers' influences include the great teacher Viktor Lowenfeld, a Viennese Jew who fled the Holocaust and encouraged Biggers to translate his personal experiences visually. Bolstered by a trip to west Africa in 1957, Biggers embraced Pan-African themes, as can be seen in "Starry Crown," a gorgeous painting of three women making an African quilt. This piece is one of the most sublime in the exhibit.
Betye Saar -- whose daughter Alison also has work included in the exhibit -- offers a remarkable collage with her installation "Loss of Innocence." A plain white dress hangs above a chair, on which sits a photograph of a young girl. Labels sewn across the dress carry various epithets that African-Americans have endured throughout this century. By making these words tangible, Saar forces the viewer to confront the destructive nature of the terms.
The talent and poignancy of most of the art in this collection transcends the notion of race. Richard Mayhew's luminescent watercolor landscapes or Parks' abstract prints show that African-American art is American art, even if the artists sometimes have to go to greater lengths to get it seen because of their race. "When Faith Ringgold had trouble getting her works into New York museums, she packed up her story-quilts and sculpture in the trunk of her car and went around the country showing them to people," explains Hewitt. "John Scott was asked to design a door for the New Orleans Museum of Art, even though as a kid he wasn't allowed to go into it. These are circumstances some artists never face."
This exhibit is filled with diversity and overwhelming talent. "There are so many stories here," says Hewitt. "Almost too many to tell at one time. But we tried."