California African American Museum Exhibits Illustrate Diverse Influences


The California African American Museum (CAAM) officially focuses on the cultural heritage and history of African Americans, particularly in the western United States, but the exhibits currently on display are more expansive, The three main exhibits at CAAM, which is in L.A., illustrate the diverse backgrounds and influences of black (or partly black) artists. While they seem different (except the ethnicity of the artists), the exhibits reflect how hard it is for marginalized people to blend in.

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women

African American women did not feel included in the 1960s Women’s Movement. They perceived it as primarily white, middle-class, and mainstream. So, several black women artists became activists to draw attention to women of color, both as subject matter and artists. The exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” examines their political and artistic priorities and attempts to add conversations around race to feminism and even art history. Artist Emma Amos comments in the show that a black woman walking into an art studio itself was revolutionary at the time.

“We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” was organized by and presented earlier this year at the Brooklyn Museum. Featuring over 40 women artists, the show at CAAM is the only West Coast appearance, and will be there until Jan. 14, 2018.

New York-born artist Faith Ringgold is largely known for her narrative acrylic paintings on fabrics (derived from Tibetan tankas) that also contain some written text inscribed vertically. One here, “Of My Two Handicaps,” features a colorful landscape that pulsates with color. It features a 1970 quote from Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American women elected to Congress, “Of my two handicaps, being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”

The public has rarely seen another Ringgold piece here, unless they have been incarcerated in NY. The eight-by-eight-foot work in oils, “For the Women’s House,” was created in 1971 for the prison at Riker’s Island, which was female at the time. Ringgold interviewed inmates about how women should be portrayed. The result in a multiracial montage of women as police, playing professional basketball, a doctor; a minister, a hard hat construction crew member, bus driver, etc. The work is still owned by the NY prison system, and normally hangs in the new Women’s House of Detention on Rikers. However, it has been lent a few times to museums for exhibitiomuseumns and is currently at CAAM.

Photographers Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson used their work to confront racism and prejudice. Their images in the museum are eye-catching on their own, but the two women also include captions that give the works bite. For example, Weems shows a black woman looking at her reflection and asking, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all.” The mirror answers, “Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!”

Lezley Saar’s “Salon des Refusés”

Lezley Saar specializes in the depiction of persons outside the realm of what is commonly believed to be “normal.” The L.A. born artist’s “Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected)” show reflects various series of “portraits of people rejected and marginalized.” The exhibition’s name is derived from an art exhibition held in Paris in 1863 organized by artists that had been excluded from the official Paris Salon, the annual exhibition that could make or break a career. Those painters were excluded because of their avant-garde style and subject matter, and the title is perfect for Saar’s unconventional pieces.

The exhibition, which will be at the museum until Feb. 18, 2018, reflects several of Saar’s most recent bodies of work. Her “Madwomen in the Attic” mixed media efforts show characters from classic novels. The two acrylic and digital photographs pieces included here feature Bertha Rochester (the first wife from “Jane Eyre”) and Thérèse Raquin, the titular centerpiece of Émile Zola’s novel. Of note, both characters are of mixed race, Bertha from the Caribbean and Thérèse the product of Madame Raquin’s brother and an African woman.

Saar’s “Gender Renaissance” depicts gender fluid Victorian portraits where the subjects have on attire that does not fit their physiognomy and odd objects on their head (reflecting their thoughts, per Saar). For example, a man in a dress has long golden curls and a butterfly on his head.

Her “Monad” series uses melancholic Victorian subjects in a surrealistic setting. These vibrant images deal with the occult, mysticism and interpretations of metaphysics.

Circles and Circuits I: Chinese Caribbean Diaspora

“Circles and Circuits I: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora” explores works by artist with an unusual ethnic legacy. They are from the Caribbean (and partly black) but all descend from a mass Chinese emigration in the 1800s and 1900s. The works reflect their transcultural upbringing and influences in Cuba, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and other areas. It should be noted they were largely not from the Han majority, but were ethnic minorities in China who left for the West.

Part of the Pacific Standard Time LA/LA Southern California-wide art extravaganza, “Circles and Circuits” is presented at two venues: the Chinese American Museum (CAM) and here. The CAAM display, which will be there until Feb. 25, reflects the emergence of Chinese Caribbean art up through the region’s independence movement period. The exhibition features some well-known artists as well as some better known in their own countries.

Cuban painter and sculptor Flora Fong’s works, several of which are included, seem to show Caribbean scenes and palm trees bending in hurricanes. The way she renders the tree tops are of note. She typically displays three thin fronds in the shape of the Chinese character meaning person.

One artist included here is George Holder, the late Trinidad-born actor, dancer/choreographer, and Tony award winner for directing and costume design. Besides his Broadway work, he is known for his 7Up “the Uncola” commercials in the 1970s and 1980s, portraying the villain in “Live and Let Die,” and other film roles. His paintings reflect his Caribbean heritage. For example, one of his pieces at CAAM, “Botanic Gardens,” was a commissioned piece he did for the Trinidad Hilton.

The California African American Museum exhibits that illustrate such diverse influences are accessible Tuesdays to Sunday. (The museum is closed on Mondays.) Admission is free. This being L.A., however, parking is not and is cash only. The Metro Expo Line light rail system runs nearby, exit the Expo Park/USC stop.

By Dyanne Weiss

Exhibitions visit October 25
California African American Museum
TIME: A New Exhibition Shows How Black Women Challenged the Art World
The New Yorker: Behind Bars
LAist: Photos: Artist Lezley Saar Paints A Stirring Portrait Of Marginalized Identity In ‘Salon des Refusés

Photo of “Woman with Chickens, 1958,” Carlisle Chang (1921–2001), Oil on board, Courtesy Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago
Photo by Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum of Faith Ringgold’s (American, b. 1930). “Early Works #25: Self-Portrait, 1965.” Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Elizabeth A. Sackler, 2013.96. © 1965 Faith Ringgold.

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