Arts & Entertainment

Northern Virginia Art Beat




“She’s So Articulate: Black Woman Artists Reclaim the Narrative”

Through July 19 at Arlington Art Center (3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington). Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Call 703-248-6800 or visit www.arlingtonartscenter.org.

“She’s So Articulate” is a showing of 11 African-American women. Seven of the 11 artists shown here come from outside the local scene. Bringing this show to Arlington Arts Center illustrates the Center’s continuing effort to refine its image as a mover and shaker on the regional art scene

African-American art can be a difficult genre to grip and rightfully so. As if European-American art is homogeneous, this event will shake any preconceived notion of “black” art. These are women operating in the context of their lives and experiences, but for the most part staying away from in-your-face political statements.

That said, the decade-old cibachrome images by Renee Cox feel somewhat dated. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in the past ten years. Cox’s self-portraits depict her as an African-American superhero fighting the oppressive forces of European-American society and injustice. Sounds all well and fine, and it is, to a point. “Burning” has her standing between what seems to be a burning cross, though it may simply be a building. Either way, the burning cross and KKK connotations are inescapable.

Cox’s image “Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben” depicts Cox rescuing young, vibrant Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their servant lifestyle. Depicting the static, awkwardly posed figures in strident movement, the key to this image, however, is in their eyes. Cox challenges the viewer: “I’m getting them out of this, and don’t get in my way.” We see the commercial characters look heavenward, now in bikini and trunks. This contrasts the conventional idea of a slave’s requirement to look down in deference and never to look their master in the eye. The “No Artificial Coloring” and “Brown Rice” text on the boxes wryly refer to the social absorption of black culture and rap music by the larger society, too.

On the other hand, it’s Cox’s image “Lost in Space” that seems most disturbing. Here we see Cox and a balding, middle-aged, middle-manager type (save for the Doc Martin-ish footwear) floating in space. She is measuring him for a punch that will send him into the sun below while he surrenders with a “Don’t hit me!” pose. We’re hard pressed to see his character as physically threatening. Much like how Bill Cosby has said it’s time for people to lift themselves up, we realize Cox’s image deals with reverse discrimination and stereotypical bigotry. The power through victim hood scenario faces challenges; this year we may likely see a mulatto black man elected to run the country.

One of stellar piece in this show is Stephanie Dinkins’ video entitled “Americana I.” Projected onto a screen of waxed pages from the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, we see an expansive landscape and a young black woman walking atop a ledge. She struggles to balance herself against a powerful crosswind and sudden gusts. It’s short in duration but draws you to feel her struggle to keep balance, in hope that she succeeds and doesn’t fall. It seems an especially fitting metaphor for the way society forces minorities to balance their lives between their heritage and the expectations of the world at large.

Another excellent piece fills the downstairs gallery next door. Here we find Nekisha Durrett’s seven part saga of Disney-like animal characters in the woods. The exact story line is intentionally inscrutable, yet it holds distinct clues that steer you along to the truth. In the end, we see a cute bear is revealed to be a young girl of ambiguous ethnicity donning a bear suit. This is, of course, to the shock and horror of the woodland creatures around her. Similarly, it speaks to the need for minorities to wear a socially acceptable disguise in order to succeed. The production value in this tableaux is more than first rate. This is definitely one D.C. artist worth keeping your eye on.

Another of my favorites is a seemingly abstract image by Maya Asante, entitled “Blood of Our Ancestors.” We find a large vertical swath of white ink jet paper coated with colored tissue paper found in her grandmother’s attic. The paper before us holds a richly layered and textured image, at times seeming to hold woodblock prints and figural forms. It’s unclear if this effect was deliberate or happenstance. Either way, the work has dense colors that run down the lower half of the image in root-like tendrils that wash out in diffuse clots of color at the bottom. It seems to speak of life and its nourishing support. Visually, it works on a wide variety of levels. It’s an engaging and engrossing piece.

Artist Opportunities

“1460 Wallmountables 2008” at D.C. Arts Center (2438 18 St. NW). Runs July 16 and 17, from 3 p.m. – 8 p.m. and July 18, from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. Site selection and installation for two square foot spots on the wall. Warning: this show fills up fairly fast. Think of a mini-Artomatic with more chaos and more young, serious artists. The openings tend to be loud, hot and packed like a sardine can. For pure artistic fun, though, this one rates a ten. For complete details call 202-462-7833 or visit www.dcartscenter.org/1460_08.htm.

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