Revelations: Art from the African American South

Lonnie Holley, "Him and Her Hold the Root," 1994.

Lonnie Holley (b. 1950 ), "Him and Her Hold the Root," 1994. Rocking chairs, pillow, root. 45.5 x 73 x 30.5 in. Ron Lee/The Silver Factory © Lonnie Holley.

New exhibition to showcase recent acquisition of 62 works by 22 contemporary African American artists
de Young | June 3, 2017 – April 1, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO (May 3, 2017) — The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are proud to present Revelations: Art from the African American South, an original exhibition celebrating the historic acquisition of 62 works of art by 22 contemporary African American artists. Works include paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by acclaimed artists such as Thornton Dial (1928-2016), Ralph Griffin (1925-1992), Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), Joe Light (1934-2005), Ronald Lockett (1965-1998), Joe Minter (b. 1943), Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929), Mary T. Smith (1904-1995), Mose Tolliver (1919-2006), Annie Mae Young (1928-2012), and Purvis Young (1943-2010). These pieces join the Fine Arts Museums’ renowned collection of American art, adding an essential chapter.

“The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco house one of the world’s greatest 350-year survey collections of American art,” says Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums. “Accordingly, we feel a special responsibility to take the lead in expanding the representation of artists who reflect the historical diversity and complexity of American culture. This exhibition celebrates our groundbreaking acquisition and allows us to introduce this work and these artists to what may be a completely new audience.”

These objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. Born in the era of Jim Crow segregation—and with slavery in their inherited memory—the majority of these artists were self-taught. The works in this collection embody the promise and progress of freedom in the civil rights era, and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, such as race, class, gender, identity, and spirituality. Historically marginalized, patronized, or promoted with reductive terms such as folk, naive, or outsider, these artists have only recently garnered new exhibition opportunities, museum representation, and foundation and collector support, as well as critical and popular acclaim.

Displayed in galleries usually reserved for the permanent collection of American art, Revelations: Art from the African American South will showcase the entire acquisition alongside relevant works drawn from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including prints by Kara Walker and sculptures by British artist Cornelia Parker and Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

“While all these objects embody universal human values, they are also powerful testaments to African American cultural resilience and survival,” notes Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator-in-charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums. “Originally created as expressions of personal identity and communal solidarity in the South, they will now serve as catalysts to transform global art history.”

Revelations: Art from the African American South is curated by Timothy Anglin Burgard and will be on view at the de Young from June 3, 2017, through April 1, 2018.

IN DETAIL
The exhibition opens with three very different paintings of African Americans from the Fine Arts Museums’ permanent collection that document slavery, sharecropping, and civil rights: Robert, Calvin, Martha and William Scott and Mila (ca. 1843-45), by an unidentified artist; Robert Gwathmey’s Cotton Picker (1950); and Jack Levine’s Birmingham ’63 (1963). Also on display in the first gallery is a group of press photographs documenting pivotal events in the civil rights movement. The photographs include the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Across the gallery is Purvis Young’s Talking to the System (ca. 1975); the oil painting depicts three young people—two with halos—confronting white and black elders. Paying tribute to the essential role played by young African Americans, many of whom were martyred, Young confronts systematic and institutionalized racism. The painting also simultaneously confronts the perpetual tension between generations—a dynamic that transcends race.

From there, the exhibition delves into one of earliest forms of African American art-making in the South with a look at the stunning quilts from the isolated hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Highlights of the second gallery, “‘Ideas All Around’: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” include works by Plummer T. Pettway and Annie Mae Young. As with many of the artists featured in this exhibition, these quilters used recycled and found materials to create stunning works of art, many of which were originally intended for domestic use. Young’s “Bars” Work-Clothes Quilt (ca. 1970), made from strips of cloth from visibly worn-out work pants, is a striking example. Audiences may be familiar with some of the quilts in this gallery, which were previously on view as part of the 2006 de Young exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.

The next gallery, entitled “Roots and Branches,” delves into works of assemblage and root sculptures with key works by Griffin, Harvey, and Holley. Many of these sculptures feature actual tree roots and branches, materials employed by many African American artists in the South. Holley, whose career began by a tragic accident, creates visual stories out of recycled materials. His best-known assemblage, Him and Her Hold the Root (1994), is prominently placed in the center of the gallery. It is comprised of a smaller “female” rocking chair that rests its arm upon a larger “male” chair, as if mirroring the supportive and stabilizing relationship of an absent female/male couple. Together, the chairs support a large tree root evocative of family tree “roots” and genealogy. Griffin’s Noah’s Ark (ca. 1980) is displayed nearby. Griffin’s conception of the Genesis story appears to unify the blue waters of the flood, the white of the sky, the blood-red of the flesh destroyed in the deluge, and the black mountain where the ark came to rest, in one abstracted, boat-shaped form.

The exhibition continues with works by Minter, Light, and Smith in “Yard Show: The World at My Door.” The “yard show,” an outdoor gallery of natural and manmade objects, is one of the oldest artistic traditions in the American South. Drawing inspiration from the world they know, these artists address themes ranging from the Old Testament to pop culture to Civil Rights. Dominating this gallery are Minter’s Camel at the Water Hole (1995) and The Hanging Tree (1996). Both are made of welded found steel and relate to his African Village in America, a dense sculptural installation in Birmingham, Alabama, which critiques on the exploitative history of slavery and Jim Crow racism. Nearby, Light’s Dawn (1988), an oil painting revealing the inverted and reversed phrase God of Israel, illustrates the story of the Israelites from Exodus. Light’s portrait Elvis (1992), Smith’s Untitled (1987), and Tolliver’s Rainy Sunshine, Cats and Dog, Drum Beater (1987) also hang in this gallery.

Dial’s Lost Cows (2000-1), assembled from painted cow skeletons, confronts viewers as they move into the next gallery, “Thornton Dial and Ronald Lockett: The World at Large.” Addressing the cycles of life and death that are central to agrarian life, the abstracted skeleton behind the four white cows struggles to guide his wayward herd. Here Dial critiques the white supremacists (represented by pelvic bones, which resemble Ku Klux Klan masks) who created the Jim Crow system, but were “lost” without their African American employees. Lockett, Dial’s younger cousin, is represented in this gallery with England’s Rose (1997). This sheet-metal assemblage was inspired by the death of Princess Diana, one of the first public figures to physically embrace those living with HIV/AIDS. The vertical bars recall the fence of Kensington Palace, and the gradual descent of rose bouquets suggests a shift from vivid life and light to death and darkness. Diana’s life and death resonated with Lockett, who passed away from HIV/AIDS-related pneumonia one year after the work was completed.

The final gallery, “From the Margins to the Mainstream,” examines a pan-African sensibility in mainstream contemporary art. The gallery includes Kara Walker’s recently acquired Resurrection Story with Patrons (2017); Robert Colescott’s A Taste of Gumbo (1990), depicting a white woman sampling African American food and culture; Anatsui’s Hovor II (2004), which uses recycled aluminum bottle caps to comment on postcolonial economic and cultural exchange; and Cornelia Parker’s Anti-Mass (2005), created from the timbers of an African American Southern Baptist church burned by arsonists.

Media image gallery

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RELATED EXHIBITION | Coming Together
Drawn entirely from the recently acquired Paulson Fontaine Press Archive, Coming Together will accompany Revelations: Art from the African American South. Featuring prints by Lonnie Holley, as well as quilters centered on Gee’s Bend, including Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, and Loretta Pettway. Bendolph’s quilt from the recent acquisition, Strips and Strings (2003), also figures in this gallery. Coming Together is curated by Karin Breuer, curator-in-charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Due to light-exposure issues, the prints will appear in two rotations, the first from June to December 2017 and the second from January to May 2018. 

Visiting | de Young
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. Open 9:30 am–5:15 pm. Tuesdays– Sundays. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

Ticketing
Entry to Revelations: Art from the African American South is included with purchase of general admission ticket. For adults, general admission is $15; for seniors 65+, $10; and for college students with valid ID, $6. Members and children 17 and under receive free general admission. More information can be found at deyoung.famsf.org/visit.

Exhibition Catalogue
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will produce a scholarly volume of 184 pages featuring all of the works of art in the acquisition, plus artist autobiographies, biographies, quotations, and an introductory essay by Timothy Anglin Burgard. The exhibition catalogue retails for $39.95.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Director’s Circle: Diane B. Wilsey. President’s Circle: The Honorable Willie L. Brown, Jr.; Belva Davis and William Moore; Denise Bradley-Tyson and Bernard J. Tyson; Paul A. Violich. Curator’s Circle: Sharon Bell and Karen Bell Francois and Family; Dr. Ronald and Mrs. Rosemarie Clark; Jill Cowan and Stephen Davis; Joyce and Al Dixon, Jr.; David Fraze and Gary Loeb; Allison Nicholas Metz, MD and Family; Brenda Wright; California Hawaii State NAACP. Conservator’s Circle: Jeana Toney and Boris Putanec. Benefactor’s Circle: Cheryl Algee and Steven Eugene Davis; Ernest A. Bates, MD; Megan Bourne, in appreciation of Belva Davis; Tracy and Damon Burris and Family; Supervisor Malia Cohen and Warren A. Pulley; Francee Covington; Sterling A. Davis and Darolyn D. Davis; Frankie and Maxwell Gillette; Anette Harris and Marc Loupé; George and Marie Hecksher; Mauree Jane and Mark Perry; Sarah Ogilvie, PhD and Jane Shaw, PhD; Barbra Ruffin-Boston; Deborah Sims, Ed.D.; Angelique and Irving Frank Tompkins; The San Francisco Chapter of The Links, Incorporated; Anonymous. The catalogue is published with the assistance of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment for Publications.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. It holds the institution’s significant collections of American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

Media Contacts
Miriam Newcomer, Director of Public Relations | mnewcomer@famsf.org | 415.750.3554
Francisco Rosas, Public Relations Coordinator | frosas@famsf.org | 415.750.8906