Lawdy Mama by Barkley L. Hendricks

Black Refractions, found on the top floor of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC, opens strong with a portrait painted by Barkley L. Hendricks in 1969. Set against a navy wall, the painting Lawdy Mama portrays a young African-American woman, encircled by a gold leaf background and window shaped frame. The treatment intentionally evokes religious symbolism typical of Byzantine holy figures blended with the gaze of women from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. This entrance is at once powerful and masterfully painted, setting the tone of the show which features 72 artworks from 60 artists of African descent created from the 1930s to the present.

Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem
The Gibbes Museum of Art
Charleston, SC
May 14- August 18, 2019

The exhibition is on loan from The Studio Museum in Harlem who has arranged for their collection to travel while the institution’s space in Harlem undergoes renovations. Founded in in 1969 with the goal of a providing a central place for the exhibition and discussion or artwork by artists of African descent and work inspired by black culture, The Studio Museum has grown to collect and exhibit some of today’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, positioning itself as a nexus for discovery and discussion.

The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC

The story of the Gibbes Museum is much different, once so restricted membership was by invitation only; however, this is a history the museum is working to amend. Recent years have shown a concerted effort by the institution to be more representative of the full population of Charleston in both their collection and exhibitions.

As such, Black Refractions directly confronts issues of race, power, and identity particularly relevant to the Southern region. Themes of representation and identity prevail throughout the exhibition in a variety of mediums ranging from sculpture to photography and even tapestry.

Kehinde Wiley, The Gypsy Fortune-Teller, 2007

Notably, the hanging textile The Gypsy Fortune Teller by Kehinde Wiley revisits techniques similar to Hendricks’ painting by employing contemporary young African American figures in a composition mimicking an eighteenth-century French tapestry.  Though the composition and ornate backgrounds are borrowed from the traditional work, the subjects are presented in contemporary urban clothing and offer a stark contrast to the imagery typically expected of such tableaus.  Although created almost forty years apart, both works by Wiley and Henricks bring attention to the lack of representation of people of African descent throughout art history.

The show, presented in a non-linear format, does not, however, focus solely on the portrayal of African Americans in the history of art but also their larger contributions to the canon overall.

A 1981 collage by Romare Bearden depicts and intimate look at daily life, while the poured painting Blond Betsy by Frank Bowling offers a nuanced and formal approach to form and color theory.

Frank Bowling, “Blonde Betsey” 1976

The eye-catching neon light work Give Us a Poem by artist Glenn Ligon closes the show presenting the words “Me We” in alternating illuminated flashes.  The succinct yet eloquent phrase is borrowed by Ligon from Muhammed Ali’s response when asked to give the audience a poem at Harvard University in 1975.

Glen Ligon, Give Us a Poem, 2007

Give Us a Poem not only speaks to the experience of personal and collective identity, but also directly relates to the museum’s education initiative that makes the presentation of Black Refractions unique to the Gibbes. In collaboration with the exhibition, Charleston-area high school students were asked to submit their own original poetry in response to a specific artwork in the show.  These texts are exhibited alongside each work giving Charleston’s youth an opportunity to explore and engage with the works on a significant and personal level.

The exhibition and artwork shine in an institution and city rife with a rich and complicated African American history.  The show presents the expression and ideas of black artistic production not typically represented in historical southern institutions, and the viewpoint is undoubtedly refreshing.  The true strength of Black Refractions, however, lies beyond the context of the exhibiting institution and excels primarily due to the caliber of the artists and artworks presented– reminding all viewers that great art is ultimately inclusive of the greater human experience.