Black women in art and the stories they tell

Feb 10, 2012

The Museum of Art and Archeology is commemorating Black History Month with an exhibition called "Black Women in Art and the Stories They Tell."

The show sets out to represent black women as the creator, but also as the subject. In the gallery, there are about a dozen pieces, some by famous artists, others lesser known. And each piece tells a story.

Mary Pixley is the Associate Curator of European and American art at the museum and helped put the show together. She explains what role storytelling plays in the exhibit:

“Each work of art has a story embedded in it and there are different ways that you can tell that story. What’s interesting is that you bring your information when you visit one of these works of art and you work with the story that’s given to you by the artwork, but then you create another story as you revisit the art as you try to re-understand slavery and really understand the reverberations of past events that still exist today.”

Pixley gives a mini tour starting with one of the more striking pieces: a series of photographs by Carrie Mae Weems. The words “Grabbing, Snatching, Blink and You Be Gone.” are juxtaposed between two photos of former slave holding cells in Senegal. These cells were often the last stop for slaves that went on to America. Their stone walls and empty dim corridors are permeated with a sense of hopelessness.

“You are within these buildings that were basically the holding tanks for the transfer of slaves," says Pixley. "And you are in there and with those words you begin to understand that you the viewer that slave could’ve been grabbed, snatch and gone. It’s harrowing and the photographs are so penetrating with those words. It’s one of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition I think.”

Next up is Elizabeth Catlett, an African American artist best known for her politically charged sculpture and print work. There’s a black and white etching is titled “My Role has been Important in the Struggle to Organize the Unorganized.”                                   

“You have a woman here who’s in the middle of the composition who’s clearly stating that we’re working for freedom and you can see there’s people around her who are rather passive but they’re starting to listen and change doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen without work and you can see this woman struggling to cause change to take place.”

For music lovers here's a Joseph Delaney piece that references the boogie-woogie genre. There are both male and female figures in shapes that seem to form around the beats and rhythms of the music.

“Up at the top of the canvas you’ll see a keyboard and some hands emerging as the pianist is playing away at the piano and then you’ll see these wonderful long strokes curving through giving you an idea of the rhythms that takes place," says Pixley. "And then there’s this punctuation presented by the large very angular forms that jut off the side of the canvas as people clap, sing, play drums and listen to the music."

Missouri storyteller Gladys Coggswell gave a performance to kick off the exhibit, here she talks about “Sharecropper,” another one of Catlett’s prints:

"That Mr. Bill, he got some nerve telling me, 'hurry up with your lazy self, you better pick some more cotton' like 70 lb. bags and 12 hour days aren't enough. I wish I could go home to a big house like he do. I bet he got cotton sheets on his bed, thems cotton pants he walk around in, and thems cotton shirts on his back. I know they gotta whole lotta things made of cotton. Well that cotton was picked by these black hands. Standing all them hours on my aching  feet. It's my back that's hurting and it's my skin that's wore out."

Coggswell’s created her own stories around some of the pieces, adding another level of storytelling to the experience and another way to find meaning in the art.

"Black Women in Art and the Stories They Tell"  will be on exhibit at MU's Museum of Art and Archeology through April 29.