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New York Exhibit Displays African-American Art - 2002-05-11


In New York, a new exhibition of contemporary art celebrates the creative and meaningful works of self-taught African-American artists. Many of the artists represented in the show grew up in the segregated South during the civil rights movement and experienced the turbulent times that followed.

A painting on carved wood, sectioned off into four scenes with cartoon-like figures in each section, looks as if a child could have painted it. But on closer inspection of the work entitled "Assassination" by African-American artist Leroy Almon of Georgia, a viewer notices the scenes are actually significant historical representations. The four scenes depict the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Bob Buck heads Exhibitions International, a non-profit traveling exhibition service for museums, which organized the show.

"It is cerebral in that it is so well organized, particularly one that is like almost a history painting that we are standing in front of. Leroy Almon's expression of tragedy in terms of assassination of public figures -two so important to black leadership and two presidents, so he is talking about tremendous loss to the nation," Mr. Buck said.

The exhibition "Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South" is on view at the AXA Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibit of more than 70 works from the private collection of Ron and June Shelp features paintings, drawings and sculptures from celebrated African-American southern artists such as Thornton Dial, Sr. and Bessie Harvery to lesser known figures like Archie Byron and Georgia and Henry Speller.

Ron Shelp said he has traveled all over the world collecting art, but this particular collection was from his own backyard, so to speak.

"I do not need to go to Brazil, or Indonesia or Senegal to buy art. I can buy it right here in the United States and in many ways, it is more focused because instead of just being a mixture of art from all over the world, it is all from one place. It is all southern, it is all African-American, and in this case, it is contemporary," Mr. Shelp said.

The collection has been called a testimony to the struggle for social justice, cultural identity and spiritual and personal fulfillment experienced by southern African-Americans.

Artist Paula Holland recently viewed the show. She said the work of self-taught artists tends to be simple, but to her, as an African-American, the pieces on view here have great meaning.

"It is amazing what people were able to do with not very much money for materials and not really any kind of education. The subject matter is African-American and focused and generally speaking, African-Americans paint African-Americans," Mr. Holland said.

The exhibition is organized around six themes important to the African-American South - witnessing history, allegorical animals, Biblical scenes, iconic human figures, spiritual messages, and observation and decoration. The show will travel around the United States before the private collection returns to the Shelps in New York City.

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