10 Close up of Falling Down WallpaperTwo local galleries have collaborated to bring a thought-provoking exhibition about materials, style and content. “New Media Abstraction and Identity Politics: in Traditional and Contemporary Black Visual Art” is an exhibit that spans two galleries: Rosenthal Gallery at Fayetteville State University and Ellington-White Contemporary Gallery at 311 Gillespie St. in Fayetteville.

Visitors to each gallery will immediately feel that each artist in the exhibit has something to communicate about a fixed experience and possibilities. In combination with the diverse materials artists use, no one will leave the exhibit without reflecting on the power of the visual image to evoke someone’s passion on a subject — more than likely a transformative experience will take place for anyone visiting the galleries.

One can sense that each artist in the exhibit is part of a greater intent — to help people come to know or understand something by feeling it emotionally or physically. Dwight Smith, the curator of the exhibit at Rosenthal Gallery, defines new media abstraction as “a contemporary aesthetic used to examine, interrogate and re-imagine dominate cultural narratives of black experiences … contemporary artists exploring a wide range of traditional and nontraditional materials from a variety of sources.”

Smith noted, “Looking for works that infuse elements of technology, music and pop culture, science fiction, magical realism or historical fantasy is effective in helping visual artists articulate new subjectivities as well as new realities. In this invitational 10 02 For Strengthexhibit, artists were asked to freely interpret the various ideas discussed within the theme of new media abstraction.”

Of the 48 artists from the East Coast and Midwest, 30 works are in Rosenthal Gallery and the remaining 18 are located at Ellington-White Contemporary gallery. Included in the exhibit are new young artists, but also a “Who’s Who” of nationally recognized artists: Ben Jones, Peggy Blood, David C. Driskell, Willis Bing Davis, John Biggers, Margaret T. Burroughs, Shirley Woodson, Charlie Johnson, Louise M. Johnson, Lee Ransaw and Robert J. Stull.

An older generation and a new generation of black artists are exhibiting together to create a wave of Afrocentric sensibility, social justice and everyday black life as the structural underpinning. There are so many excellent works of art in the exhibition that visitors will need to visit each gallery several times to absorb the range of themes and ways in which materials are used to evoke meaning.

I did select two artists to share with readers. New generation artist Ackeem Salmon is exhibiting a large work titled “For Strength.” A mixed-media photo transfer on wood, the portrait is an enticing work on many levels. Visitors will be stunned by the classical beauty of the image. Yet upon closer examination, one will see Salmon leaves the surface rough in areas; seams of the transfer paper are evident to contrast with what the image renders possible — perfection.

An older and established artist, Ben Jones, has two works in the exhibit that reflect his preoccupation with two themes, environmentalism and social justice. Rosenthal Gallery is exhibiting an 8’x 8’ detailed wall hanging on canvas titled “Falling Down Wallpaper.” In this work, the artist promotes the idea of saving and valuing our environment by including words from poems and painted a series of images from nature — birds and plant life.

In contrast, Ellington-White Contemporary Gallery is exhibiting an installation by Ben Jones titled “Trayvon Martin.” The 8’x 8’ wall hanging on canvas is a grid design of hundreds of images of the slain teenager. Jones modified each image to reflect the results of social media and the variety of ways people across the county viewed the teenager. A wooden chair painted a flat black and a stack of toy guns are in front of the 8’x 8’ detailed and challenging wall hanging.

Jones is presenting lectures, one on Feb. 7, to Fayetteville State University art students and the public at Rosenthal Gallery and another lecture for the public, Feb. 8, at Ellington-White Gallery.

Jones is an American artist with a great interest in Cuba, where he is well-known and has had several major exhibitions. Jones has made over 50 cultural exchange visits to Cuba since the 1970s and is noted by the Granma International of Havana, Cuba, as one of the most important African-American artists of his generation. For nearly five decades, Jones’ multimedia installations have reflected his travel and research in Africa, Europe, South America, the United States and the Caribbean to include the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, New York; and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba, to name a few. He has received numerous grants and awards including two National Endowment for the Arts grants (2007 and 1974-75), The Puffin Foundation (2005) and The Joan Mitchell Foundation grant (2002) among many others. Jones has lectured at universities, museums and cultural institutions worldwide including, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia; Wilfredo Lam Center, Havana, Cuba; and University of Ghana, Accra, Ghana.

Having such a powerful large exhibit as “New Media Abstraction and Identity Politics: in Traditional and Contemporary Black Visual Art” leads to a simple question, how were the galleries able to coordinate so many established and new artists in one exhibition?

Both agencies have had connections to two established organizations that have promoted the works of black artists for many years: The National Conference of Artists and The National Alliance of Artists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The National Conference of Artists, founded in 1959, is devoted to the preservation, promotion, and furtherance of African and African-American culture, and the creative forces of the artists that emanate from the African world experience.

The NCA proudly proclaims its existence as the oldest African-American visual arts advocacy organization in the United States. Its members include artists, educators, scholars, exhibitors, art distributors, art collectors and gallery owners, museum personnel and supporters of African and African-American art and culture. It has national chapters in many large urban areas of the country. The newest chapter is the North Carolina Chapter, which is located in Fayetteville.

Dr. Lee A. Ransaw, then dean of arts and letters and chair of the Fine Arts Department, along with Lamar Wilson, Director of the Ruth Hall Hodges Art Gallery, envisioned the National Alliance of Artists from HBCUs during the summer of 1999 on the campus of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. NAAHBCU’s mission statement defines the purpose of the organization is to bring art and art education to the forefront of member institutions and to keep these programs as institutional priorities for generations to come.

The Alliance is committed to developing in its members, and especially students, the artistic and life skills needed to function as literate citizens in the society of today and in the future. The NAAHBCU also exists to provide comprehensive activities that offer artistic and expressive opportunities for professional artists employed or formerly employed at member institutions as well as for historians and curators, collectors and friends of the arts.

“New Media Abstraction and Identity Politics: in Traditional and Contemporary Black Visual Art” will be on exhibit until Feb. 29. Ben Jones will be the featured guest lecturer for the exhibition on Feb. 7, at Rosenthal Gallery and Feb. 8,  at Ellington-White Contemporary Gallery.
For more information, contact Dwight Smith, assistant professor of visual art and director of the Rosenthal Gallery, Fayetteville State University at 910-672-1795.

Top picture: “Falling Down Wallpaper” by Ben Jones
Bottom picture: “For Strength” by Ackeem Salmon

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