Embracing African American Art

Three BYU professors – Rebecca de Schweinitz, Kristin Matthews and Matthew Mason – share their thoughts on the BYU MOA exhibit, Embracing Diverse Voices: A Century of African American Art, for the museum’s Take 5 discussion.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 16, 2017)—For the first time, the BYU Museum of Art has an exhibition completely devoted to African American Art. Three professors were invited to each take five minutes and share responses they had to the art featured in the exhibit.

“Artists can give us a different perspective,” said Janalee Emmer, MOA Head of Education. “This exhibit contains 25 different artists and 25 different perspectives which offers us an incredible opportunity to expand our worldview.”

The first to speak was BYU associate professor of history Rebecca de Schweinitz. “I was especially drawn to representations of children in the artwork,” she said. “My favorite was a painting by contemporary artist James Watkins entitled ‘Victims’ (1955) which was inspired by Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The painting shows two young African American children, a boy and girl with blank luggage tags attached to their clothing. Near the bottom of the canvas is a band of black heads, eyes closed with tape or gags over their mouths.  

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou writes about how she and her brother Bailey Johnson Jr. were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, from Long Beach, California. Angelou writes, “Why did they send us away? And what did we do so wrong? Why at three and four did we have tags put on our arms to be sent by train all the way from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, with only the porter to look after us? Besides, he got off in Arizona.”

De Schweinitz explained that this experience shown by Watkins and experienced by Angelou was not uncommon. The painting captures, among other things, the history of black migration and its impact on families. “Kids, including kids by themselves, traveled back and forth.” The, often violent, oppression of blacks in the South, represented by the images at the bottom, “necessitates this movement and migration of children,” de Schweinitz said. She also suggested the painting spoke to silences surrounding issues of race and sexual violence and the power of breaking down those silences.

The next to present was Kristin Matthews, BYU associate professor of English. “I’m currently working on a research project that I’m calling ‘Black Feminism 2.0,’ about contemporary black feminist movements which includes thoughts on black motherhood.” Matthews referenced a recent anthology Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, which discusses what it means to be a mother of color in the United States; “loving by any means necessary, fighting for the right to parent in a healthy and safe environment, and creating a better world for their children.”

The artwork that most struck Matthews was Elizabeth Catlett’s lithograph Madonna (1982). This print depicts an African American woman with her arm wrapped around the heads of two African American children. “The Madonna represents the revolutionary mother in art…the face of this Madonna looks concerned and sorrowful, wraps her arms around her children speaking to her role, as if she already knows that their lives are going to be filled with tribulation, violence and loss.” The print, Matthews said, brings an awareness of sacrifice. Quoting Luvvie Ajayi, she said, “’When your empire grows out of the soil fertilized by the blood of its people, it must contain its power with their continued bloodshed.’”

Referencing the facial expressions of the figures, Matthews closed, “I was also struck by the expression of the youngest child [in the print] seems to be meeting our gaze and holding it, questioning, ‘Do you see me? Do you recognize my worth? Will you protect me? Or will you sacrifice me?’ Questions we still don’t have good answers for.”

BYU associate professor of history Matthew Mason was the last to speak. “I want to talk about the theme of slavery and how it hangs over the collection, including in ways that might not be immediately apparent.” One of the artworks, Darden’s Slave Ship (1928), reminded Mason of the Brookes’ slave ship illustration made in 1787, which inspired so much empathy, Mason said, it caused the emperor of Russia to weep.

Along with this representation of actual slavery, Mason was also fascinated with Jacob Lawrence’s series of prints featuring the life of John Brown, an abolitionist known for his violent campaigns – including an attack on the 1859 U.S. Armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. When he was interviewed in jail, Brown came across as a well-meaning Christian and was even described by Henry David Thoreau as a Christ figure and “angel of light.” Lawrence follows this idea by depicting Brown as a martyr, including crosses and other sacred imagery in many of his prints. Mason closed, “There was an admiration for Brown as a white man who would put his life on the line for black people.”

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Images: Jacob Lawrence, The Builders (1974); Elizabeth Catlett, Madonna (1982); Brookes Slave Ship Illustration (1787)