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One is a basketball star, the son of an NFL champion, brought up to appreciate the art and culture of his African-American heritage. The other is a white woman from the South devoted to advocating for social justice.

Shared history 

Two personal collections of art offer counterpoints on the African-American experience

click to enlarge Romare Bearden, "Bayou Fever #19: The Emperor of the Golden Trumpet," ca. 1975 - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ROMARE BEARDEN FOUNDATION AND ESTATE OF NANETTE BEARDEN
  • Image courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation and Estate of Nanette Bearden
  • Romare Bearden, "Bayou Fever #19: The Emperor of the Golden Trumpet," ca. 1975

One is a basketball star, the son of an NFL champion, brought up to appreciate the art and culture of his African-American heritage. The other is a white woman from the South devoted to advocating for social justice. Each has amassed a collection of art that draws inspiration from the African-American experience, assembled for the purpose of sharing and teaching. Both collections are on view in the Triangle through July 16. Viewed together, they offer different reflections of the black experience and the common human experience.

Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke and Common Ground: Finding Community in 150 Years of Art, Selections from the Collection of Julia J. Norrell at the North Carolina Museum of Art have much in common. Both are personal collections assembled by individuals, not by curators, of art they have chosen to live with on the walls of their home. They also reflect the lessons their collectors wish to share with the world and the histories they wish to preserve. The Hill collection, which features African-American artists exclusively, prefers to reflect the triumph of beauty and lyricism over implicit hardship. The Norrell collection is an unflinching exploration of the question of race, emerging out of the Southern milieu to embrace world culture.

Hill, the famous Duke alum and Orlando Magic forward, comes to art-collecting naturally--his mother and father collected art that positively mirrored the black experience at a time when there was a dearth of such images. The art they chose to fill their home created a sanctuary of sorts, and Grant Hill seems to have followed his parents' lead in this regard. Images of women and motherhood are a theme of the exhibit. Even the portrait of Malcolm X shows the confrontational civil rights leader smiling.

Along with the conventional curator's remarks, Hill's own comments about these wonderful works are featured in wall signage, offering an impassioned everyman's approach to art appreciation that will undoubtedly attract many viewers who might not otherwise connect with the multi-layered influences depicted in the works.

The heart of the collection is comprised of works by acknowledged African-American masters Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett, two artists active during the time of Civil Rights in America. Bearden, who grew up in rural Mecklenberg County, N.C., forged his artistic vocabulary in New York, finding inspiration in the Caribbean later in his career. Catlett, heartbroken over discrimination in America, moved to Mexico where she married painter Francisco Mora, finding a culture that more readily accepted the rainbow of human skin colors.

Together with the adjacent Duke student-curated exhibit, Conjuring Bearden, the 13 Beardens from the Hill collection comprise something of a mini-retrospective of the artist's career. The Hill collection contains two works from the early 1940s, gouaches done on brown paper, as well as the late lyrical collage paintings for which Bearden is perhaps best known. The student-curated project, led by Duke art history professor Richard Powell, features early photomontages from the '60s that show the germination of the collage concept that reaches fullest flower by the '80s, the last years of Bearden's life.

The student show centers around the theme of the "conjur woman," a woman whose presence in the community was valued for her knowledge of herbal cures and remedies or potions to set romance right, knowledge handed down by African ancestors and augmented by Native American influences. The magic of the "conjur woman" was also suggested by the Caribbean religion Obeah, to which Bearden was exposed during his visits there. Later in his life, he owned a home in St. Martin, and the mystery and saturated color of the Caribbean are fused into his late works, such as the nearly uncontrolled, hypnotic green watercolor flow of "Obeah in a Trance."

Bearden was a tremendously erudite man who read complex art and literary theory while grounding himself in the great works of art and literature. He wrote extensively--stories, stage plays, screenplays, song lyrics, as well as essays on union labor. He received a Guggenheim to write an African-American art history, a project in collaboration with Harry Henderson that was posthumously published. He was an artist acutely aware of art history. Early on in his career, he experimented with making photostats of famous works of art, such as 17th-century Dutch interiors and Japanese woodblock prints. Photographing these images in the negative produced dark faces for the figures, suggesting that such compositions could be reclaimed in service of the African-American experience--and indeed, such art historical sources often became the backbone of Bearden's collage compositions.

Collage, an art form pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was inspired by African art in the development of the angular, planar Cubist style. It seems fitting that this African pedigree would serve Bearden's uses. He distinguished himself by composing the faces of his collaged figures with fragments taken specifically from reproductions of African masks or Benin bronzes, consciously making the cultural link to an ancient African artistic heritage from which he drew sustenance. He also treated with special sensitivity the surface textures of his materials, working papers in unusual ways, including sanding and spray painting them and even throwing bleach on certain areas, which gives the illusion of dappled splotches of sunlight.

click to enlarge Louis Stettner, "Penn Station," 1958, gelatin silver print, 13 1/2 x 9 in. - LOUIS STETTNER, USED COURTESY OF JULIA J. NORRELL
  • Louis Stettner, used courtesy of Julia J. Norrell
  • Louis Stettner, "Penn Station," 1958, gelatin silver print, 13 1/2 x 9 in.

Elizabeth Catlett's sculptures partake of this same desire to root the African-American experience in personally resonant art historical and cultural sources. Like Bearden, she came to maturity during the painful period of the Civil Rights movement, and her work as an artist came to fruition at a time when there were few positive images of African Americans in popular culture. Three of Catlett's grandparents were slaves, and though her mother earned a college degree, discrimination prevented her from finding a teaching job.

As a woman artist of color, Catlett has taken the charge to present subjects of her gender and race with dignity and beauty, and as in Bearden, her lyricism embodies a universality all can embrace.

In her sculptures--some carved in stone, some cast in metal--Catlett's close attention to the nuances of material is an essential element of their success. "Mother and Child," a highly abstracted triangular shape comprised of a portrait bust of a woman in profile, contains the image of a child with its arms outstretched in the negative space of the hollowed interior of the mother's body. The glowingly translucent soft orange of the onyx from which it is carved transmits the physical closeness of mother and child. Catlett's bronzes reflect either a slightly textured, worked surface, as in "Seated Woman" (1987), or the smooth surfaced, mottled turquoise and black patina so evocative in "Star Gazer," where the effect is that the figure becomes a night sky herself, her shell-inlaid eyes casting skyward. Also especially effective in bronze is the expressive "Singing Head" (1978), in which hollowed eyes and open, hollow mouth suggest the resonance of the human voice.

The sitting or standing poses of some of Catlett's works, with one foot before the other, the subtle cue of a garment with a frontal pleat, deliberately hearken to ancient Egyptian sources, and also to the cultures of the ancient Americas that she absorbed in her adopted homeland of Mexico. The majestic "Reclining Woman" (2001), leaning back languorously on one bent elbow, her pose balanced by a crossing of her legs, is smoothly carved from gray stone with regular flecks of white and black providing surface interest and reference to carvings of the ancient Americas. In the reclining figures, a savvy absorption of modernism hints of lessons from Matisse and Henry Moore.

In the video that plays in one of the mini-theaters in the gallery, Hill and Catlett drop in at Howard Middle School in Orlando, Fla., where the sculptor speaks of her art of "sheroes," encouraging young students to envision themselves as artists and to cultivate their knowledge of the rich heritage of African-American visual culture. An 88-year-old woman, she tells the students she would still like to do a big sculpture of Harriet Tubman. "I think about what's going on in the world," Catlett says. "I work especially with the theme of African-American woman, people who work hard for a living, their beauty, their strength and dignity."

The world those women and men must overcome is an undercurrent of her work, not visible on the surface. The most explicit reference is in one of Catlett's early lithographs, made to illustrate Margaret Walker's poem "For My People," in which we see a lynched man alluded to in the poem.

click to enlarge Romare Bearden, "Bayou Fever #6: Swamp Witch," ca. 1979 - COURTESY ROMARE BEARDEN FOUNDATION & ESTATE OF NANETTE BEARDEN
  • Courtesy Romare Bearden Foundation & Estate of Nanette Bearden
  • Romare Bearden, "Bayou Fever #6: Swamp Witch," ca. 1979

The dark history of racial strife that remains in the background of the Grant Hill and Romare Bearden exhibits is out front in Common Ground. Among the show's explicit pieces are William Christenberry's "K House" (1996), consisting of a few minimalist, calligraphic white marks on black paper that form an ominous klansman's hood; Debbie Fleming Caffery's photograph, "KKK, Louisiana, 2001," which chillingly confirms the klan's current existence; and William H. Clarke's painting "Midnight, 2000," depicting the self-taught artist's vision of a lynching, vividly imagined from stories he remembered being told as a child.

Nearby in the exhibit, Jacob Lawrence's lithograph "Two Rebels" portrays white police officers dragging off two black men while onlookers to the scene are reduced to disembodied, floating heads. That piece visually rhymes with Fred Wilson's black-and-white drawing of, in his words, "people beaten down so hard they turn into tears" pooling at the paper's edge.

Norrell, an outspoken Washington lobbyist, never shies away from controversial subject matter. In fact, her eclectic collection of more than 1,500 works seems to be assembled for the purpose of not allowing the public to forget the facts of human existence we might prefer to overlook. By the same token, she is drawn to works that underscore shared human experience and suggest a common future, as in a circa 1940 photograph by Helen Levitt, in which a black man and a white man respond with broad smiles to a baby, illustrating the dream of racial harmony.

The daughter of two members of Congress, Norrell grew up traveling between Washington and her home state of Arkansas. The hypocrisy of the segregationist South and humanity's iniquities have always rankled her. She was trained as a lawyer and became a lobbyist for long-term health care, unions and other social reforms. In many ways, her collecting interests mirror her work: She see herself as an advocate for people without a voice.

At the exhibit's opening in May, Norrell spoke of the segregated Arkansas she knew as a child. "I never 'got' segregated drinking fountains," she said. "If you're a child and you can't read, why wouldn't you drink out of either? Early on, I was impacted by segregation. I couldn't reconcile it with the Christianity of my family."

Her passion for collecting began with rare first edition books by Southern writers such as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, soon branching out into self-taught artists and photography (not surprising, considering Welty was a photographer, and Norrell herself worked in the medium) documenting the South. She then expanded even further into other kinds of art objects which in their own way can be seen as an extension of the documentary concept.

The genesis of the collection is what Norrell describes as "nostalgia for the South I knew that was already changing" and a desire to preserve its history, both good and bad. African-American artist Beverly Buchanan's "Small Red Shack" (1997), constructed from foam core planks, is a reminder of the kind of humble, rural architecture that is fast disappearing from the landscape, the kind of place where the artist recalls having "the best fried chicken of my life, and saw stars through the roof." Artist Fred Wilson has made it a part of his artistic mission to realign the curatorial practices of museums, something he did at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, where he found African-American Moravian dolls tucked away in storage. Photographing and enlarging the doll's faces, he forges a new work of art by bringing a forgotten heritage of shared black and white community to light.

Norrell's collection has been ever expanding its arc from its Southern center, following her active intellectual queries. "For me, it's been a circle that keeps widening," she said. That circle has widened to encompass world events during her lifetime, such as Donald Woodman's harrowing "Eyeglass Case at Auschwitz," which quietly conveys the enormity of lives lost in the Holocaust, and Shomei Tomatsu's 1961 gelatin silver print "Uragami Church, 600 Meters from the Blast, Nagasaki," which marks the utter devastation of the atomic bomb blast that ended WWII, visible over a decade later in scattered columns and statues of winged angels.

More recently, the collection has absorbed Zwelethu Mthethwa's compelling 2002 untitled chromogenic print depicting a South African man and his albino son. The tragedy of 9/11 has brought images of Islam into her collecting sphere, including Edward Grazda's image of Afghani women.

But if she wants to remember human tragedy, she also wants to remember what is possible with the hope that comes from knowing we all share the same emotions. Everyone can feel the pain of the little girl in W. Eugene Smith's "Death of Gus-Gus" (1953), as she looks upon her dead pet mouse, lovingly placed in a cigar box on a bed of leaves and tenderly attended with daffodils, or the sadness of Eldridge Bagley's rainy morning funeral, or taste the leftovers at his "Reunion Table."

Norrell has collected against the grain, not for the cachet of owning prestigious objects (though she does possess those), but buying artworks for their content, for the stories they hold. Like Hill, she has committed to sharing those stories, collecting art as though it were a vocation, a way to serve the common good.

"You live with a piece, it becomes part of you," Norrell said. "Then you want to share it. The sharing of one's art is like the sharing of one's friends." Norrell is inspired, she said, by what she learns from the reactions of "the real people who look at the collection."

Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art and Conjuring Bearden run though Sunday, July 16 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2001 Campus Drive in Durham. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. For hours, call 684-5135 or visit nasher.duke.edu.

Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art, Selections from the Collection of Julia J. Norrell runs through Sunday, July 16 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call 839-6262 or visit www.ncartmuseum.org.

More by Michele Natale

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