The struggles, challenges, determination and pride that black Americans experience every day are the focus of a Downtown exhibit at the Riffe Gallery.
“Black Life as Subject Matter II,” curated by Willis “Bing” Davis and continuing through July 8, features 56 works in a variety of media by Black Ohio artists. Racism is the main theme and through paintings, drawings, sculptures, quilts, mixed media works and more, the artists confront, process and present their feelings on this subject.
Davis, 84, is an educator and artist whose own works reflect black American life and African culture. In this exhibition and its predecessor – “Black Life as Subject Matter” presented in 2016 in his hometown of Dayton – Davis has collected powerful works that speak particularly to artists’ experiences over the past five to ten years.
“Today we are one community, one nation and one world in a great state of struggle and change,” Davis wrote in his curator’s statement. “Protests that continue to unfold in cities across the north, south, east and west have reached a point of no return-to-the-way-things-were . The all-too-frequent recorded brutalities and recorded deaths have sparked a determination never seen before in the struggle for freedom, justice and peace.
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As expected, many works can be difficult to see. Paintings and drawings by Dayton artist Dwayne Daniel feature images such as a tied up black man crouching under a Confederate flag. Another Dayton artist, James Pate, depicts a contemporary black man in a suit with the metal yoke used on slaves strapped to his neck.
But Pate also created one of the most uplifting works – his charcoal drawing “Ayo’s Chair”. In it, a young boy engrossed in the book he is reading sits on a chair whose legs are carved with the faces of strong black men. Behind the boy is a studio with artists working hard on sculptures and paintings. The drawing beautifully captures the importance of positive role models for black children.
Davis, the curator, has several works, including “Anti-Police Brutality Dance Mask #22”, a provocative integral structure constructed of clay and found objects.
Accomplished painters in the exhibition include Ronnie Williams of Dayton whose “Inside Out” confronts the issue of black assimilation into white culture; Abner Cope, former Dayton resident, whose “Virginia” shows a proud black woman in braids; and Thomas Hudson of Richmond Heights who portrays a laborer in “Switch.”
One of the most beautiful works is the colorful “Mr. President,” a 2009 fiber art quilt celebrating the election of Barack Obama, by Cynthia Lockhart of Cincinnati.
Centerville artist Lois Fortson-Kirk honors the late John Lewis with a terracotta bust. Larry Winston Collins of Oxford is depicted with two mixed media sculptures of shooting victims, ‘Homage to John Crawford III’ and ‘Homage to Sam DuBose’.
Shaker Heights artist Chelsea Craig created a sculpture of herself with dark and light skin tones, representing the varying skin tones of black Americans and questioning their place in the concept of beauty.
In his digital photographic painting, Horace Dozier Sr. of Dayton collected slogans from protests, including this one: “You know it’s time for change when kids act like leaders and leaders act like kids.
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And Robert Parkey III of Dayton provided two color photographs of the “Mammy” cartoon. In his statement, Parkey noted that he used to see such figures at garage sales at antique stores and never thought much of them until he saw one. with a price tag around the neck. It struck him, he wrote, that black Americans were still sold out.
Such poignant moments can be found throughout this exhibit, even as viewers examine other images that capture the beauty and accomplishments of Black American life. This varied mix of visual stories echoes something Davis writes in his statement.
“The arts may not have solutions to all of society’s problems, but the arts have the energy and power to identify things to celebrate and preserve, but also to reveal questions worthy of wide scrutiny and discussion within the community and the nation.”
In one look
“Black Life as Subject Matter II” continues through July 8 at The Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery, 77 S. High St. Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Call 614-644-9624 or visit www.riffegallery.org.