Art of transformative rebellion at Wright Museum, DIA
Fifty years to the day after the first bottle smashed at 12th and Clairmount in Detroit, sparking five days of mayhem, two Midtown museums are opening complementary exhibitions tied to the anniversary that examine art’s use as a social and political weapon.
On Sunday, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History will unveil “Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion.”
A short walk away, “Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement” debuts at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The two institutions collaborated on their shows, and the result is a kaleidoscopic tour of some of the most-important black art from the 1960s to the present, albeit with a focus on exhortation and protest.
“This exhibition has been a lifelong dream of mine,” said the Wright’s Erin Falker, an assistant curator who organized “Say It Loud” with Jennifer Evans, also an assistant curator.
“We even got Faith Ringgold’s ‘Flag for the Moon,’ ” Falker said with an astonished laugh, referring to the artist famous for her narrative quilts. “I’ve been looking at that in art-history books since 10th or 11th grade. It’s pretty amazing.”
Indeed, prepare to be amazed throughout these two shows, whose works brim with urgency, rage and hope.
At the DIA, African American Art Curator Valerie Mercer explains that a number of the 34 works on display emerged from black art collectives that in some cases aimed to instruct a community whose self-identity was in rapid flux.
“Harlem’s Weusi collective felt we African-Americans needed to learn more about African culture,” Mercer said, “which is hard for us, since it’s typically not taught in schools.”
Ademola Olugebefola’s colorful, totemic “Shango” exemplifies this push — painted in 1969, it introduces black Americans to the Yoruba god of thunder, rendered in primary tones of red, blue, black and white.
Other instructional works are tied to themes of self-image and empowerment, like AfriCOBRA collective artist Wadsworth Jarrell’s dazzling, mosaic-like “Three Queens” from 1971.
In this work, said Mercer, “Jarrell promotes the natural beauty of black people.” Indeed, he goes further, demanding that the viewer “Stop buying Chuck’s wigs and make-up.” (One wonders how Chuck felt.)
But Afro-centric art started well before the Detroit riots, of course. Indeed, don’t walk out of the DIA’s exhibit without taking in “Conjur Woman” by the legendary Romare Bearden, a 1964 black-and-white collage invoking shamanic ritual.
Bringing the DIA’s show right up to date, however, is the punchy “1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and Beyond” by Detroiter Rita Dickerson, which connects the murder of those three young black men with much more recent victims of police shootings like Tamir Rice and Eric Garner.
The violence upholding white privilege crops up in any number of works at the Wright’s “Say It Loud.”
“Uneven Fight” by Detroit artist Jason H. Phillips stars a young black boxer surrounded by agents of white repression, including — leaping back several hundred years — a dour judge in powdered wig.
To underline the point, Phillips, who’s also a tattoo artist, inked “Black Lives Matter” on the muscular chest of his boxer, who regards the world with resigned despair.
Overall, the Wright’s exhibition has a more contemporary feel than the DIA’s “Art of Rebellion,” with its classic works by Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, among others.
A good example at the Wright is native Detroiter Jamea Richmond Edwards’ “An Ode to Farrad #2,” a 2014 tribute to a brother who was killed that mixes the masculine and feminine in a gender-bending fashion that feels very 21st century.
“Jamea sort of makes shrines” with her portraits, said Falker, adding, “you’ll note the flower halo. And Farrad’s face is actually a combination of his and Jamea’s.”
Also very contemporary is Detroiter Senghor Reid’s “Broadcast News,” with its black, blocky letters on bright yellow that scream, “The ’67 riot didn’t take place.”
Like much work here, Reid’s piece is in your face and defiant, reflecting the angry self-confidence forged in the last century’s struggles.
By contrast, Benny Andrews’ haunting “There Must Be a Heaven” spotlights one of racism’s casualties, a faceless, anguished African-American, both bent and beseeching. The piece by the late New York artist is one of the most emotionally resonant in the entire show, a composition moving and deeply disturbing.
By contrast, Detroiter Yvonne Parks Catchings’ “The Chains Are Still There” is an elegant, black-and-white abstract of interconnected links — a simple composition that, like so much in “Say It Loud” and “Art of Rebellion,” packs extraordinary punch.
‘Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement’
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward, Detroit
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays
$14 adults; $9 seniors 62 and older; $8 college students; $6 children 6-17; free for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne county residents
‘Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion’
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
315 E. Warren, Detroit
1-5 p.m. Sundays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
$8 adults; $5 seniors 62 and older; $3 children 3-12