by David Stone
Photos by Piaskowski
“Black Lives Matter” pierced the fabric of American culture in the past year, sparking debate and filling newspapers. The subject of race was forced to the mass media forefront by community reaction to a series of violent police confrontations. In Afrocentric Images, the Annual Black History Month Exhibition at Gallery RIVAA, 527 Main Street, the political meme is given vivid, positive expression in depth and subtlety within art.
Literally, in aluminum artwork by Alan Mildor, “Black Lives Matter” is a legend printed freehand on two small pieces of cardboard, seemingly taken from a protest sign, held up by a pair of individuals who lean against either side of the center pole in a subway car. The car itself is so well lit, it’s almost blanched, emphasizing the colorful figures in the foreground. With vibrant wit, the casually dressed person on the left obscures his entire head with an American flag while, on the right, his suit and tie wearing partner hides behind a mask of Barrack Obama.
It’s a straightforward expression – seen from an angle the mass media, in its hunt for raw conflict, never shows – a declaration of a lively, aware culture amplified on these gallery walls.
Afrocentric Images extends across a broad range of experience, from romance to historic heroism to music, with numerous stops in-between. Pax Rwanda, a companion exhibit that features embroidery straight out of Africa, weaves in folk artistry and cultural heritage.
Lorraine Williams, assisted by featured artist Andrew Nichols, earns praise for mounting an exhibit of meaningful range without weak spots. Similarly, Juliana Meehan’s Pax Rwanda features beautiful embroidered images so intricately woven as to seem impossible.
These well-paired exhibits opened with a reception on February 6 and will continue to excite visitors until the 28th at RIVAA Gallery, 527 Main Street.
Musical expression enjoys visual representation in this show. Lynvan A. Munlyn’s lively S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil) is New York themed with curvy, dancing bodies secured on a geometric urban grid. It’s strong earth tones repeat with Akassa’s Natural Song. Akassa’s musician sits in surreal grid, garbed in loose, traditional attire, with a lapful of musical instruments at his command.
Not far away, I found a favorite, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove inventively represented on a foil print. Roy Hargrove at the Highline artfully matches metals while showing the musician’s cool command of his instrument. In Andrew Nichol’s Melody, another unnamed horn player, who looks awfully like an uncharacteristically at ease Miles Davis, launches visual expressions of sound that resemble patches of fabric floating upward from his instrument.
Suggesting music visually is no easy thing, and these artists do it creatively.
In a pair of inspirational posters on canvas, Gregory Whishum brings black history and pride into frames. The first, Great African American Women, offers a grid of women’s faces, centered with Michelle Obama. The First Lady is surrounded by twenty accomplished women, from Harriet Tubman to Josephine Baker to Condoleezza Rice, demonstrating the breadth of their contributions to our culture. It’s easy to imagine this poster on a teenager’s wall.
Whishum’s second poster, From Slavery to Presidency, features a laid back President Obama among a sea of historical images from history, suggesting an exceptional man arriving in the present from a stream of cultural evolution.
With embroidered artwork, Pax Rwanda returns us to Africa. The dominant earth tones fit right in and, except for their vivid folk art style, are indistinguishable from the larger, main exhibit.
Pax Rwanda delivers the designs of Savane Rutongo-Kibuye, embroidered into reality by a team of artisans from her workshop.
“Their embroidery technique involves loading threads of three different colors on one needle to achieve subtle blends of color. Only rarely does any one area of an embroidery consist of a single color. In this way, the artisans strive to create with needle and thread what the painter produces with brush and paint,” according to its website.
Curator Juliana Meehan elaborates, “Each finished work takes three or four months to complete.”
The precision and artistry of the work is seen best in The Sorghum Market, where fields, piles of grain, people and baskets intermingle in a busy marketplace. The colors are rich and eye-catching, the composition elaborately satisfying.
Among other examples from Pax Rwanda, The Milk Blessing illustrates the daily activities from “The Land of a Thousand Hills.”
More of this work can be found at: rutongoembroideries.com.
Sentiment and Myth
Andrew Nichols shows his gift for more accessible, intimate art in Just the Two of Us, an acrylic on canvas, an expressionist’s portrait of a couple enjoying the quietude of being together, seated on a wall with a dreamlike field of infinity before them. Less abstract but equally exciting is Nichols’s Summertime. A patchy display of colors describes a young woman in a floppy brimmed hat as she sips from a straw dipped into a green chalice that suggests a giant apple or the Earth itself.
Also not to be missed are Nia Imani’s Oceana, an erotically mystical acrylic on wood suggesting a powerful African Goddess, and Akassa’s intense, Klee-like Feelings. But in a show with such consistent quality, there are more exciting pictures than there is space to report on them.
Don’t miss it. RIVAA’s Annual Black History Month Exhibition will stick with you, reminding you that the range of black lives that matter extends far beyond the political arena to artists who reflect and find inspiration in cultural expressions found in thousands of communities across America.
Until February 28, entrance on the street level, 527 Main on Roosevelt Island. Gallery Hours, Tuesday and Thursday: 6:00 to 8:00 pm; Saturday and Sunday: Noon to 5:00 pm.