Exposure: Black Voices in the Arts confronts the poor representation of African-American artists in American museums. The show, at the University Art Gallery, posits that the problem might be the lack of museum curators, conservators and educators who are black — which, nationally, averages less than 4 percent.
But Exposure is not a show presented in a museum, or curated under a museum’s sponsorship or guidance. It’s instead a highly ambitious, often compelling examination of African-American artists, all connected somehow to Pittsburgh, developed by undergraduates in the University of Pittsburgh’s Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar.
For followers of Pittsburgh artists, many of these works will be by known persons. But the most consistently invigorating aspect of this exhibition is supplied by names we’re less acquainted with: artists gathered through the efforts of Transformazium, the collective that operates the Art Lending Collection at the Braddock Carnegie Library.
Still, much from the established artists is phenomenal. Jacob Lawrence’s “The 1920s: The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots” is a vibrant silkscreen, using a handful of hues to create a vivid, bustling narrative. Charles “Teenie” Harris’ photographs document Pittsburgh life, often including the artists whose work is displayed nearby; a Thaddeus Mosely sculpture looms large and majestic. And if you’re versed in the cityscape, you’ve seen George Gist’s murals elevating buildings all over town; here, he’s scaled down from brick to canvas, but the power isn’t reduced even half a notch. Carl “Dingbat” Smith’s signature technique of creating images with hammered nailheads is rich with texture and depth, and in Ramon Riley’s stark cityscape targeting a section of Braddock, a wash of deep color takes it to another level. Surprising is a lithograph from Romare Bearden: It’s simple washes of flat color over a few curving lines that is far from how we usually envision his work, and it is delightful.
- “Collecting Blue Spheres,” a painting by Norman Brown
Most of these works come from Pitt’s own collection, primarily acquired as gifts. And the show’s very production in some ways proved its thesis: Available for students’ contemplation were works by Europeans and Chinese and Japanese artists, and work after work after work by American artists — or, at least, Americans who are white. But filling this smallish space with works by black Americans required leaving the cultural riches of Oakland for Braddock.
The short trip made a world of difference. The exhibition truly shines with artists whom we likely have not heard of, yet. Much of the show is comprised of works on loan from Transformazium, whose Braddock-based projects includes exhibitions and installations, artist residencies, community access to printmaking equipment, and the creation of family portraits. The Art Lending Collection Project allows Carnegie Library card-holders to check out original works of art, just as they would a book. It includes work from many artists within the city and community, and it’s hard to imagine how this exhibition would have turned out without their participation.
Mary Carey, one of the library’s two Arts and Culture Facilitators, permitted students access to the library’s holdings and steered them toward artists. She also solicited community participation, even recruiting artists she knew, leading many to loan works to the exhibition or create work for it.
- "There are Black People in the Future" (2013), a mixed-media work by Alisha B. WormsleyArt on loan from Transformazium, the Art Lending Collection at Braddock Carnegie Library
“If I Had It to Do Over Again” is a small and gorgeous book created by James Kidd, spellbinding in both narrative and aesthetic. Raymond Seybert’s pencil portrait “Bob Marley” is rich and warm; Seybert is an inmate at SCI Fayette Prison, participating in Transformazium’s Prism Project, which Carey curates. Two works by established contemporary artists — “There Are Black People in the Future,” by Alisha B. Wormsley, and “This Blackness Is Just For You,” by Ayanah Moor — are both simple graphic statements, and both are resoundingly strong.
- “Fanfare for Fannie,” a sculpture by Thaddeus Mosley
Many of the works are centered upon or inspired by Braddock itself. Grits Capone’s digital collages “Uprising 1 & 2” are powerfully evocative; Edward Murray’s untitled work from his “Lost and Found” series is stirring, chilling — the story of an unnecessary community tragedy. “Day of the Iron Pour” is a screenprint by Deavron Dailey that tells a tale simply by showing the facts. While there’s often darkness here, there are moments of glorious light. With the photograph “Braddock: Deconstruction and Smoke,” Todd Steele finds beauty within the drudgery of industry, and DJ Jackson’s painting “Puppy Luv” sweetly conveys two hearts bursting with unchecked emotion.
The works by the more canonical Pittsburgh artists give the impression that a part of each was created by Pittsburgh. Works by the emerging artists, meanwhile, suggest that Pittsburgh is something they’re creating, and that is thrilling. The lack of black people in power positions in museums is still repugnant. The work being done outside of the museums is challenging, electrifying and rejuvenating, and should be where museums are going.