• Today is: Friday, July 10, 2020

ART REVIEW | Portraiture Exhibition | Columbia Museum of Art

By Tom Mack | CMA

For too long, certain segments of the general population have been forced to look at themselves through other people’s eyes and, consequently, bind themselves to other people’s expectations. In 1975, for example, feminist critic Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” in articulating her argument that women had been defined for centuries in both literature and the visual arts by men who saw them not as fully integrated human beings but as objects of desire.

What: Spoken: Portraits in Black
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Through Sept. 25
More: 803-799-2810, columbiamuseum.org

Much the same argument can be applied to other groups that have been, for one reason or another, denied the ability to define themselves. Take, for example, the current exhibition in the Treadway Gallery at the Columbia Museum of Art. Spoken: Portraits in Black showcases how contemporary artists of African ancestry have turned to portraiture to reveal, according to consulting curator Porchia Moore, the “lived experience of black people” in America. These artists have, in effect, taken control of their own image-making and, in so doing, have helped to broaden our collective understanding of African American culture.

In her curatorial statement, Moore offers a list of characteristics that may very well provide the museum visitor with a way of approaching this impressive exhibition. Indeed, she sees in these pieces culled from the CMA’s permanent collection evidence of “beauty, pain, pride, and historical legacy.”

Beauty is most amply embodied in the digital photograph by Atlanta-based filmmaker Roni Nicole Henderson. Entitled Blue Self-Portrait, the image captures the photographer herself in carefully delineated silhouette, framed in an archway and illuminated from behind by two wall sconces on either side of an ornamented mantelpiece. The background is covered or draped in a blue film as if the solid outline of Roni Nicole’s head and shoulders was floating in an aqueous element. Moore believes the piece makes reference to “oceanic and matriarchal principles”; certainly the glowing blue reminds the viewer of water and, by extension, the origin of life.

Pain is evident in John Wilber’s portrait etching of Martin Luther King Jr., a commanding image that confronts visitors square and center as they enter the gallery. The artist has lavished all his attention on the face, which bears an expression both sober and sad. In his role as the leading civil rights activist of his generation, King must have felt at times that he was bearing the burden of the whole movement on his shoulders.

Pride is the first word that may come to mind in confronting Pool Lady by former Rutgers University professor Emma Amos. In her label next to this work, Moore refers to the “stereotype that black women don’t swim,” an assumption dramatically discounted by the swimming golds won in Rio this summer by Simone Manuel. This 1980 etching by Amos prefigures that achievement by more than three decades; it features a full-figured black bathing beauty, one hand on her right hip, eyes fully focused on the viewer as to challenge the world regarding her right to share, if not dominate, the pool. The lateral stripes on the figure’s swimsuit remind the viewer of the fact that Emma Amos also established a notable reputation as a weaver.

Finally, the present exhibition pays homage to historical legacy. Consider the large-scale triptych by New Jersey-based sculptor and visual artist Willie Cole, who is perhaps most famous for his inventive use of the steam iron in his work. This particular three-part piece incorporates both the shape and the special features of the iron in inventive ways. The first part entitled “Man” focuses on Cole’s own self-portrait over which he has superimposed a pattern made by the iron’s steam holes, which now read like tribal marks. The middle image, entitled “Spirit,” is a sepia-colored silkscreen of the scorch pattern made by the typical steam iron; in this case, it reads like the universally familiar overhead diagram of the interior of a slave ship. The same steam iron shape is featured in the third part, entitled “Mask” because of Cole’s manipulation of the internal components to replicate the abstracted facial features of a classic African ceremonial mask.

Spoken presents museum visitors with fine examples of how some of today’s best African American artists are, in the words of curator Porchia Moore, reconstructing the “identities” of a minority group who have at last found their voice.