Art Pick! Reloading the Canon: African Traditions in Contemporary Art

Reloading the Canon: African Traditions in Contemporary Art at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art is a not-to-be-missed exhibition curated by Allison Gulick, a Curatorial Practice MFA Candidate at the Maryland Institute College of Art. This is a strong exhibition by all accounts, but even more impressive given that it is the thesis project of a curator-in-training. For the project, Gulick applied for and received a National Endowment for the Arts’ Challenge America Fast-Track grant, a feat that attests to her curatorial vision and the team of advisors and museum professionals she engaged to realize the exhibition.

Copyright © James E. Lewis Museum of Art (David Driskell, Night Visions, c 2005; Joyce J. Scott Ancestry Doll: 1,  2011, courtesy of the artist and Goya Contemporary; Derrick Adams, Human Structure Grounded, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, NYC)

Copyright © James E. Lewis Museum of Art (David Driskell, Night Visions, c 2005; Joyce J. Scott
Ancestry Doll: 1, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Goya Contemporary; Derrick Adams, Human Structure Grounded, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, NYC)

Exploring the influence of African art on Western art history, Reloading the Canon set out to juxtapose objects traditionally categorized as “historical” against works considered part of “modern and contemporary” artistic production. With access to the James E. Lewis Museum’s famously underrated collection, Gulick was able to handpick paintings from a rich trove of works by African American masters, as well as include selected examples of African art and artifacts.As a result, visual treasures by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and David Driskell frame the exhibition’s primary contributions by local and regional artists Joyce J. Scott, Derrick Adams, Kafi D’Ambrosi, Ernest Shaw Jr., E.L. Briscoe, Victor Ekpuk, and Adejoke Tugbiyele. Astutely placed near the entry to the gallery, Scott’s totem-like female figure made of glass, beads, and fragments of wooden African sculpture epitomize the exhibit theme by re-introducing traditional African art forms as the actual source material from which a contemporary practice can be mined.

Personal concerns and perceptions of diasporic identity seem to shape the precise subject matter other artists engage. Yet, their paintings, photographs, collages, and installations skillfully attend to issues of form, light, movement, and stasis—aesthetic considerations shared by makers of any ethnic background or artistic allegiance. Though shining a bright spot on “tradition,” Reloading exposes the real gem as the contemporary artists, who shine brightest in works that transcend the confines of any canon.

The exhibition runs through April 2, 2013. The James E. Lewis Museum of Art is located at in the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center on the campus of Morgan State University: 2201 Argonne Drive Baltimore, Maryland 21251. www.jelmamuseum.org. For more information, please contact Allison Gulick, the exhibition curator at 704-607-8427 or Nicole Paterson, museum registrar, 443-885-3664.

Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Ph.D. is a curator and global arts writer that keeps us hip to the Baltimore arts scene. Got a pick for Michelle? Email her here.