To Know Ourselves: Exploring the Work of Black Artists in SCMA’s Collection

Eliza Going ’18
Social Media Manager

On Feb. 27, Beryl Ford ’17 facilitated the gallery conversation and tour “To Know Ourselves: Exploring the Work of Black Artists in SCMA’s Collection.”

Ford explained that attendees would be visiting works by black artists in the gallery, completing a different activity for each one and participating in group discussions.

An art history major, Mellon Mays Fellow and museum studies concentrator, Ford started to conceptualize this event knowing she wanted to showcase works by artists of color. Emma Cantrell, Smith College Museum of Art’s Brown Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in Museum Education, collaborated with Ford on this event.

After noticing a “theme of black artists in the American context” expressing their blackness in different ways over the past century, Ford knew she wanted to focus on a select few pieces featured in the gallery.

The first stop on the tour was “Tattered and Torn” (1886) by Alfred Kappes. On a small sheets of paper, the participants individually answered the question, “What could be the story of this picture?”

Most striking about the first exercise was the absence of any background information about the painting. Ford funneled our attention toward the image itself, and participants hazarded guesses about the time period, artist’s background and story of the figures in the painting.

The next work was “My Brother” (1942) by John Wilson, accompanied by a short recording of Wilson speaking about the piece and the lack of representation of black people and black culture in art during the 1940s. He noted how references to black people in art are few and  often“derided.” He continued, “I wanted to put my neighborhood and my brother on the map.”

The weariness in the figure’s face could be seen as a reflection of the burden carried by black artists or a reflection of the difficulty of living as a black person in an oppressive society.

This piece also addresses another issue: the historical fear of black masculinity. The painting is extremely powerful, especially considering its small scale, intimately focused on a glowing and pensive face that simultaneously radiates exhaustion, resilience and strength.

In the following discussion, Ford asked what effect the piece would have if it were larger. One member of the discussion compared the piece’s role in the gallery to the role of a black person in a predominantly white institution like Smith: “There’s not a lot of us, but we’re strong enough to make it seem like there’s more.”

For the final stop, the group split into three subgroups to look at different sculptures on the lower level of the museum: “Temptation” (2000) by Whitfield Lovell, “Ancestral Spirit Chair” (1992) by Betye Saar and “Topsy Turvy” (1999) by Alison Saar.

“Topsy Turvy” is a sculpture of an upside-down girl, hanging by her feet from the high ceiling of an entryway. Easy to overlook for some, the sculpture is jarring once noticed.

The legs and underwear are exposed, and a white skirt hangs upside down like a veil to partially cover the figure’s face otherwise hidden in her hands. Her hair stretches out underneath the skirt. Perhaps most striking is the contrast between colors; the figure’s face, hands and hair are black, but her clothing and legs are white with small patches of brown wood.

The piece might serve as a commentary on the changing levels of safety afforded to children on the basis of race, since the underwear was white and out in the open, but the face was black and hidden. The work challenges the dynamic between what is public and private. Ford used the hair as an example, noticing how it is another exposure of the figure in addition to her underwear.

We were able to talk for two hours about only five pieces in the gallery, which is no small feat. Erika Lively AC ’17 said she will be placing the whole afternoon “into my memory bank as part of documenting my Smith experience.”

Ford will be curating a student picks show on April 1, on view in the Cunningham Center from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., featuring photography from the SCMA’s collection.

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