On Wednesday, Feb. 21, Assistant Curator of the Davis Museum Amanda Gilvin introduced works by African American artists in the museum’s permanent collections during a Black History Month Tour. Gilvin’s tour began at the top floor of the Davis, which houses predominantly modernist works. From “Old King Cotton” by Horace Pippin and “Ring Around the Rosie” by Norman Lewis to “Everforward” by Gary Simmons, to name a few, Gilvin used both the artworks and the artists’ lives to discuss themes of oppression, erasure and persistence that are found in the art. Pippin’s “Old King Cotton” juxtaposes the backbreaking labor of picking and spinning cotton done by Black slaves with the leisure of a white figure clad entirely in white cotton. “Everforward” explores entertainment and the sport of boxing, specifically its exploitation of Black bodies, cultural identity and violence as entertainment.
Audience input was encouraged throughout the tour. Several of those present, including alumnae and Dr. Tracey Cameron, assistant dean of intercultural education, director of Harambee House and advisor to students of african descent, found themselves nodding in agreement and participating with their own analyses and interpretations. One person even felt compelled to shout “Wakanda!” during the tour, drawing parallels between displays of power in Radcliffe Bailey’s “Divine” and the recently-released film “Black Panther.” A personal highlight of the tour was its conclusion at “Glory,” a rare bronze sculpture of a woman’s head by Elizabeth Catlett, a prominent graphic artist, sculptor and activist. A recent acquisition by the Davis from an auction last year, “Glory” provoked some strong reactions, including clapping, jumping up and down and excited repetitions of “Wow” and “Oh my God!” Though the Davis has several of Catlett’s prints, “Glory” is the first of the American expatriate’s sculptures to enter the collection.
While the tour was informative and provoked thoughtful discussion, I left the Davis wanting more. Most of the works discussed during the tour were on the fourth floor of the gallery and dated from a relatively small span of about 60 years. The focus was also on larger works more typically associated with museums, such as oil paintings and sculptures. None of the works from the tour, with the exception of Adrian Piper’s “Calling Cards,” focused on prints. This is in spite of the fact that the Davis owns a large number of prints, many of them by prominent African-American artists. While I was personally disappointed by the omission, this is partly an issue of medium—something not entirely within the Davis’s control. Because prints are light sensitive, it can be difficult to keep them on display for extended periods without risking damage. That being said, it would have been beneficial to see some of the Davis’ extensive print collection pulled into the tour, especially because they are typically not on display.
The tour could also have benefitted from pulling in other pieces from the permanent collection as well, especially styles and cultures that were referenced in the pieces that were being discussed. In particular, when Gilvin mentioned the African influences in Lewis’ “Ring Around the Rosie,” I felt that it would have been helpful to see an example of what might have been a reference work beforehand, such as the D’mba shoulder mask on view in the study gallery. Of course, the omissions seemed to be the result of not having enough time; one hour was not enough for us to adequately explore the Davis’ works by African-American artists. Personally, I would have been happy to stay longer to view more works; I imagine that many others at the tour felt the same. I hope that the Davis continues to provide opportunities for discussions centered on works by Black artists. Perhaps next time, there will be more time for dialogue and a space for prints.