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African American Art Since 1950 Exhibit at the Susquehanna Art Museum

by Megan Waardenburg

The Susquehanna Art Museum, a small museum located on North 3rd street in Harrisburg, has been in the city since 1989. Ever since, it has been producing exhibits in its small space in an old bank building, and community based initiatives. Recently, Lauren Nye, Director of Exhibitions, coordinated a loan on an exhibit called African American Art Since 1950, which chronologically follows the progression of artistic expression in the African American community. Nye partnered with the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland to find relevant pieces. David C. Driskell, the namesake of the center, is one of the most influential African American artists in the region, as well as an experienced professor. The majority of the featured artists worked with or were connected to Driskell himself.                                                                                                                                            

The featured art surrounds a few central themes relevant to the African American community during their time. The majority of pieces focus on the politics of identity in a country plagued by discrimination, while others focus on the internal and external struggles of dealing with racial tension, and the new voices being discovered in society with evolving rights. These themes are expressed through a variety of pieces including sculptures, paintings, photography, and video. With a mixture of well known artists such as Romare Bearden, and lesser known artists, the exhibit offers a diverse selection of pieces from the past 60 years. Beside most works are QR codes linking visitors to a webpage explaining the story behind many of the pieces.

One of the featured pieces, The Last Bar B Que by Margo Humphrey in 1987, captures African American family life through the lens of art history. Taking the idea of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Humphrey maintains certain stylistic elements, such as the Renaissance halos, and the facial expressions of the people. Her painting retains much of the details from The Last Supper that have spurred conspiracy theories throughout the past 500 years. The fusion of European antiquity and present day African American culture creates a unique piece for the exhibit.

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Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s painting, She Wore Lime Green Jellies, displays one of the most interesting stories in the exhibit. O’Neal depicts life in Morocco during the 1980’s, one of the most restrictive countries in North Africa for women at the time. Most Moroccan women wore plain black burqas, and women appeared to be nearly identical from O’Neal’s point of view. She came across a woman wearing lime green sandals with her black burqa, inspiring O’Neal to create this painting. She was intrigued by this woman’s ability to express her personality through clothing despite the uniform clothing standards.

 

Lorna Simpson’s sculpture, III, displays three wishbones, each made from a different material. Most spectators interpret this to show the inequality for African Americans in achieving their goals. Simpson makes some wishbones easier to break than others to show how some goals are more difficult to achieve.

William T. Williams’ painting from 1999, Deacon’s Day, depicts light coming through a stained glass window at a church. The painting reflects the importance of religion in the African American community, as well as diversification in styles of painting. As one of the newer paintings in the exhibit, it provides an opportunity to compare the work to the early works from 1950.

The art exhibit is beneficial to community members regardless of level of interest in art, preference of style, and field of work. The museum provides a diverse selection of paintings, sculptures, cinematography, collages, and prints. Artists or art enthusiasts with any preference can find a piece to grab their attention. Regardless of involvement in art, the museum offers insight for any personality. Anyone passionate about history can examine the historical significance of the exhibit, musicians can find pieces centered around music and its culture, and students can find new pieces to study. The exhibit strays from the misconception that art museums are for artists only. Whether you are interested in art or not, try visiting the exhibit to see what you find.

The exhibit is special to Harrisburg because of its relevance to the area. Harrisburg has the highest African American population in the area, and the exhibit offers a way to examine the unique history of the community and to bring attention to the evolution of the subculture. Nye specified that the exhibit is not a “feel good” collection, but rather forces viewers to wrestle with the difficult aspects of the implications expressed by the artists. African American communities throughout the country have not had an easy history, and the exhibit makes no effort to mask the inequalities. It highlights them in order to increase awareness of the rough history and promote racial diversity in the Central Pennsylvania area.

The Susquehanna Art Museum is open from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Tuesday through Saturday, and from 12:00 to 5:00 PM on Sundays, and admission for adults is $8. Get involved in the artwork by displaying work in the vault. Buy a magnet at the front desk for $10, design it any way you want, and it will be displayed in the vault inside. Any group interested in visiting the museum can schedule a group tour for discounted ticket prices. The museum occasionally hosts lectures from artists, including Curlee Raven Holton, a featured artist in the exhibit and professor at the David C. Driskell Center, this past November where Holton discussed the work in the exhibit in depth. Admission is free during Third in the Burg events taking place every third Friday of each month. Aside from visiting opportunities, the museum will welcome any volunteers or applications for an internship.

The Susquehanna Art Museum, though it is a small museum, is an essential institution in Harrisburg, and promotes creativity in the community. Support the museum by seeing this exhibit, contributing to their community projects, and following their new work as the museum grows.


         Margo Humphrey, The Last Bar-B-Que, 1989, lithograph. From the collection of the David C. Driskell Center © 2011 Margo Humphrey

         Mary Lovelace O’Neal, She Wore Lime Green Jellies from the Desert Women series, 1991, monoprint. From the collection of the David C. Driskell Center © Mary Lovelace O’Neal

         Lorna Simpson, III, 1994, mixed media. From the collection of the David C. Driskell Center © Lorna Simpson

         William T. Williams, Deacon’s Day, 1999, acrylic on canvas. From the collection of the David C. Driskell Center © William T. Williams


Featured image by Megan Waardenburg

Artwork images provided by The Susquehanna Art Museum

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