For Black History Month, CMPL focuses on art

By: Alex Szwarc | C&G Newspapers | Published February 24, 2021

 On Feb. 10, the Clinton-Macomb Public Library system hosted a presentation about African American art at the DIA. Pictured is Gamin, a painted plaster sculpture by Augusta Savage from about 1930.

On Feb. 10, the Clinton-Macomb Public Library system hosted a presentation about African American art at the DIA. Pictured is Gamin, a painted plaster sculpture by Augusta Savage from about 1930.

Photo provided by Detroit Institute of Arts

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP/MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Creative contributions from Black artists from the 19th century through the present day were recently on full display virtually.

Coinciding with Black History Month, “In Our Own Voice: African American Art at the DIA” was hosted by the Clinton-Macomb Public Library system Feb. 10.

The presentation was given by Howard Thomas, a Detroit Institute of Arts docent. It provided a lens for examining issues of race, gender, politics and culture.

“This is the perfect time for us to look at some of the African American artists of the 19th and 20th century and what they provided to us,” he said.

The first piece Thomas explained was “Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine,” an 1871 painting by Robert Seldon Duncanson.

“Duncanson was born a free Black who ended up moving to Monroe,” Thomas said. “He was a self-taught artist. He was recognized as the first African American painter with an international reputation.”

Thomas said Duncanson was praised by art critics, with “Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine” being his masterpiece. It was his last painting before his death.

At President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Thomas said a Duncanson painting was presented to the Bidens to be displayed in the White House.

“Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine” is located in the American gallery of the DIA.

Next, Thomas discussed Sofa from 1840 by Thomas Day, a furniture builder.

Thomas said Day created highly desirable furniture, and it is rare to find any of his work in a museum now.

In discussing “Minnehaha and Hiawatha” from 1868 by Edmonia Lewis, he said the sculpture is about a foot high, intended for a bookcase or side table.

“You can tell she was very skilled,” Thomas said of Lewis. “It was very unusual for a woman to go into sculpting at that time.”

Thomas explained that Lewis was an orphan who later suffered discrimination at Ohio’s Oberlin College. She then moved to Italy and spent the rest of her life in Europe.

Another piece mentioned in the presentation was “Flight Into Egypt,” a geographical painting, by Henry Ossawa Tanner from the late 1800s.

“He went to the Philadelphia School of Art, but he, too, suffered discrimination,” Thomas said. “It got so bad that faculty members took him to their homes to teach him.”

He then noted that, in the early 1900s, shortly before the Harlem Renaissance, a lot of Blacks left the rural south and traveled north to settle in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York, looking for work and a better life.

Thomas called the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s a period of incredible creativity by artists, musicians and writers who began formulating their work about their culture, an example of which is “Margaret Blanche Polk” from 1928 by Prentice H. Polk.

“It’s a photograph by her husband,” he said.

Other works cited by Thomas include Gamin, a sculpture by Augusta Savage; Jacob Lawrence paintings of John Brown; The Piper by Huey Lee-Smith; Singing Head by Elizabeth Catlett; Caged Brain by Tyree Guyton; and “Blood/Sweat/Tears” by Alison Saar.

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