An exhilarating exhibition at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown, brings together potent artworks that, combined, shed light on an emerging notion of collective identity that is rapidly moving into national awareness.
Pittsburgh is culturally and geographically located within Appalachia, a region that extends from northern Mississippi to southern New York along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. "Common Ground: Affrilachia! Where I'm From" examines, through the eyes of exhibitors, what it means to be an African-American artist living within that region.
Don't expect dulcimers and log cabin quilts. The 46 artworks by 31 artists, local and national, are contemporary, both in date created and intent. They address the African-American experience through a variety of media including painting, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, fiber, drawing and installation. Works by artists, acclaimed and emerging, are in turn realistic, abstract, metaphoric, expressive, contained, exuberant and contemplative. While the base line is a specific racial group and the common ground a specific locale, the art speaks across color and regional lines.
Two quietly effective ceramic works by identical twins Kelly and Kyle Phelps could be emblems for the recent Occupy movements. The female factory workers of "The Meek" console one another as they clutch pink slips; "Carlita," representing undocumented workers, is fatigued and dejected as she pushes a cart filled with cleaning supplies against the backdrop of a soiled American flag. "We consider ourselves activists ... We want people to know the everyday struggles of common men and women," the brothers, college art professors whose father and sister were factory workers, write in their artist statement.
Sandra German, a masterful quilter, muses upon President Obama's election in "Reflecting on Our Victory," a unique fiber work that places fragments of the Declaration of Independence and Pledge of Allegiance against a desolate landscape of bare trees under which a group of colorful mushroom-like shapes mingle with brown and white faces. A Sankofa bird, an African symbol that represents the need to reclaim the past in order to move forward, perches on a high branch. "My work bears witness to my bewilderment that, like so many others, my life is in rust and ruin, dismay and decay," Ms. German writes in her artist statement. "Whole segments of the population have lost everything they ever thought they owned and are living stunned, in shame; Homeless; Discarded. I see their wretched, staring eyes and I do not flinch. They see mine."
Ms. German is mother to visual and performance artist Vanessa German, well known in Pittsburgh and beyond, and those familiar with the younger artist know the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. She shows three works that combine her signature altered, symbol-infused dolls with actual instruments like banjo or fiddle, making claim for the African- American voice in traditional mountain music while referencing the past.
Painter and muralist Leslie Ansley's allegorical "Fruit of Generosity" comprises two women and a child, their portraits beautifully realized, who symbolize persistence, history and innocence, as well as the women who traveled north through the mountains to give future generations a chance at a better life. Clifford Darrett, who designates himself a contemporary genre artist, portrays glimpses of that life in realistic oil depictions of a "Family Reunion," a backyard cookout, and "Delta Sweethearts," a sorority debutante ball. They're images that "evoke a feeling and also evoke normative events," said Cecile Shellman, center artistic director of visual arts and exhibitions. Events, it may be noted, that are just as normative in the black community as they are in the white.
Ms. Shellman, who has lived in Pittsburgh for seven years and became artistic director a year ago, said she had been "intrigued by the concept of African-Americans in the Appalachian region; how they are perceived."
In 1991, poet and writer Frank X. Walker coined the word Affrilachian after he learned that Webster's Dictionary defined Appalachians as whites. The Affrilachian Poets collective soon followed, as well as recognition for musicians like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Artist and educator Marie Cochran presented The Affrilachian Visual Artist Project at a 2011 symposium and has become a champion of the visual aspect.
She is exhibition guest curator and references in the catalog a book by Jeff Biggers that documents contributions by people of African descent in the region back to the 18th century. He also speaks to four persistent images that his book, and this exhibition, debunk: pristine, Anglo-Saxon, backwater and pitiful Appalachia. "A new name has become a cultural movement filled with promising affiliations," Ms. Cochran wrote.
She selected the portion of the exhibition artists hailing from Atlanta to Lexington. The remaining, mostly regional, artists were juried from submissions by Ms. Shellman and Sharif Bey, a Pittsburgh native who is assistant professor at Syracuse University.
One driving notion for the exhibition, Ms. Shellman said, was "How do we elevate African-American and Appalachian people in general, of all stripes?"
One way was to pull together a first class exhibition -- perhaps the first focused on Affrilachia Ms. Shellman speculated -- that is professionally displayed with accompanying illustrated catalog available free to visitors ("Our main goal was to introduce these artists to the larger community and what better way than with a take-away piece?"). Another was to be gutsy enough to construct a rhythm that flows from works serious and playful, technically superb and joyfully loose, earthy and spiritual.
There are far too many engaging works in this show to address in this space, but among those that linger in my mind are those at the beginning and end.
The entry "Portable Shrine in Homage to the Middle Passage," by Willis "Bing" Davis, one of the most important contemporary [African] American artists, is an iteration of an installation begun in 1968 and re-constructed, with different objects, upon different occasions. Objects from past incarnations are supplemented with those provided by invited persons, in this instance other exhibiting artists and center staff, and include shoes, cotton bolls, rusted chains, drying daisies and earth. Ms. Shellman said "It was almost overwhelming" to witness Mr. Davis assemble the work. "It was a luminous and spiritual experience to watch him. There was power and force behind what he did. He is a tall slender elder statesman of the African-American community, a gentle spirit and very strong, an assured person. As he placed each object, there was meaning and grace and richness behind it. This was kind of an invocation to the whole exhibition."
At the end is Gulf War veteran DeWayne (BLove) Barton's "The New Religion," a mixed media installation that fills a wall-mounted coffin cum crucifix with plastic detritus (toy trucks, Santa Clauses, water pistols) to call attention to environmental concerns, waste and excess. "An altar to things that don't have value," Ms. Shellman said.
The commonality throughout is the plethora of questions and experience risen from this rich, historic region that all of us live within.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925. First Published March 7, 2012 5:00 AM