Wright Museum's 'Queen' stars strong African-American women

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Among the many pleasures COVID-19 has robbed us of, at least temporarily, is the opportunity to walk through "Queen: Celebrating Black Womanhood," the gorgeous new show at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Drawn from the extensive collection of Guyana-born actress CCH Pounder (think "E.R.," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "NCIS: New Orleans"), "Queen" is entirely devoted to depictions of African-American women. Artists included range from the famous, like Kehinde Wiley, who created President Barack Obama's official portrait, to the talented-but-obscure.

Two sculptures by German artists: Fritz Koenig's "Bust of an African Woman" (left) and Luise Kimme's "Marianne," both in "Queen" at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Some images from the show are up at thewright.org.

Wright President and CEO Neil A. Barclay explains that he first met Pounder through his brother, who's a TV director.

"We became friends over the years," he said, "particularly once CC moved to New Orleans to work on 'NCIS: New Orleans.'" Before coming to the Wright last year, Barclay headed up the city's Contemporary Arts Center.

"CC's love for contemporary art," Barclay added, "echoes my own."

And while under the current lockdown you can't get into the Wright to see the show in person, there are a number of handsome reproductions of works from "Queen" on the museum webpage devoted to the exhibition, which for the moment are far better than nothing.

Harmonia Rosales mimics Boticelli's "Birth of Venus" with her "Birth of Oshun," at the Wright Museum.

Among the works displayed at the bottom of the page are Los Angeles artist Alison Saar's "Coiff," a striking wood-and-tin sculpture of a woman's head with fabulous hair, filled with artifacts she might have used in daily life, including an iron, scissors and a paint brush.

"If you lay down in the woods," Barclay said, "you might get any number of things stuck in your hair. Saar imagined things that would have been common in the woman's life and livelihood that got embedded in her hair."

He laughed. "It's just so evocative."

Also at the bottom of the webpage is Danny Juniper's moody, equally evocative "Red Dress," featuring a young woman who looks to have something on her mind, framed by two trees.

"“Ndiaye and Her Baby” by Mayemba in "Queen" at the Wright Museum through Aug. 2.

Reproduced as well is the ceramic bust "First Wife" by Jamaican artist Gene Pearson which Barclay called "just beautifully done, and from every angle."

As it happens, Pounder has a stupendous collection, even after donating part to the museum she and her late husband built in Dakar, a gift to the country of Senegal.

"The bulk of her collection is still in storage in New Orleans," Barclay said. "I went through it and it made my head explode. She has more contemporary African-American art than most museums."

"Queen" started life as a 2017 exhibition at New Orleans' Xavier University, which the Times-Picayune newspaper declared "art lovers should not miss." In bringing it to Detroit, Barclay added a number of works, and redesigned the exhibition for the Wright's much-larger gallery space.

Other well-known artists on display include Betye Saar, Mickalene Thomas, Robert Pruitt and Joyce Jay Scott.

Barclay admits he and Pounder have an agenda with "Queen," which he hopes will travel after it leaves the Wright Aug. 2.

"I call CC my co-conspirator," he said. "The idea behind our collaboration is to get this work out to historic black colleges and black museums, and anyone interested in seeing wide swath of African-American art," in part because he's found there's a limited amount of touring work available to African American-museums.

Detail from Harmonia Rosales' "Birth of Oshun," which revises Boticelli's classic "Birth of Venus" as African myth.

When great works by black artists do come on the market, Barclay notes, they're often snapped up by the big, encyclopedic museums.

"Because many of our institutions don’t have the resources to build these collections," Barclay added, "that means we don’t have opportunity to see work by our leading artists."

It's a gap he hopes "Queen" will, in part, help fill.


(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Queen: Celebrating Black Womanhood'

Through Aug. 2

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit

NOTE: Like all Michigan museums, the Wright is current closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

(313) 494-5800