Showcase and Tell: Treasures from the Spelman College Permanent Collection goes beyond the typical museum practice of using signage and labels to convey information. The exhibit’s introduction, for instance, is an artistic installation in its own right: carefully considered design elements create a psychologically powerful statement. Showcase and Tell combines artwork and text, which together become storytelling tools for chronicling the college’s visual art history.
Spelman received its first works of art from alumna Nora A. Gordon in 1900 and began actively collecting after the art department was created in 1931. Despite a burgeoning collection, Spelman’s art lacked a permanent home for decades. It was displayed throughout campus in various offices, hallways, and dormitories until the Museum of Fine Art was founded in 1996. That same year, the museum’s nationally influential traveling exhibition, Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, inspired the staff to define its mission: The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is the only institution in the nation that specifically highlights artwork by and about women of the African Diaspora.
Immediately upon entering the Showcase and Tell, the viewer is drawn to and enveloped by the warm, vibrant yellow title wall and pedestals. Like the women celebrated by the museum’s mission, this color radiates strength and pride. Nine vessels created by artists from cultures throughout Africa stand on pedestals of varying height, a design choice that highlights the wares’ individuality—their differing sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. This display strategy evokes a physical presence that connects the viewer to the exhibit in a bodily, and therefore personal, way. The generous spacing between the pedestals intensifies this effect, because it enables viewers to walk among the small sea of vessels. The labels’ placement on the backs of the pedestals encourages viewer movement while eliminating visual clutter in front that would lessen the exhibit’s impact.
Beyond this impressive introductory section, Showcase and Tell is divided into two complimentary sections that make effective use of the gallery’s bifurcated physical layout. One side focuses on the history of the museum and includes artwork by faculty and past artists in residence. The other emphasizes key individuals whose generosity helped shape Spelman’s visual art history.
The exhibition includes a remarkable array of two- and three-dimensional work by African-American artists, among them Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, and Selma Burke. These works date from the 1920s to 2003, and together they provide an impressive historical overview.
Showcase and Tell also includes one video, Cut, created by artist duo and interracial couple Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. Dating to 2006, it is the exhibit’s most recent work. Cut features McCallum and Tarry taking turns using a straight razor to crop each other’s hair, section by section. Their slow movements, the dark atmosphere, the foreboding music, and the disturbing sound of breaking hair rouse viewer response. Quietly violent and surprisingly sensual, Cut elicits myriad emotions, many of them conflicting.
Overall, the hair cutting experience seems more traumatic for Tarry, who is both an African-American and a woman. Other artists in Showcase and Tell use appearance-related themes to investigate the social construction of race, ethnicity, and gender. In her photograph diptych titled BLUE Gold Lady (2005), for example, Atlanta artist Amalia Amaki pairs two photographs that differ only in their color palettes. Their juxtaposition reveals the degree to which color informs response, specifically that darkness (with all of its cultural baggage) is seen as negative (here, literally) and menacing—the opposite of light.
In her painting a3 blackface #65 (2003), Iona Rozeal Brown layers African-American and Japanese skin tones and fashions to create a comical yet strangely beautiful female hybrid. The artist draws from a range of Japanese and African-American cultural trends in her “a3” (Afro-Asiatic Allegory) series: ukiyo-e, hip hop culture, blackface performance tradition, and ganguro. This referential layering demonstrates the mutability of culture, particularly in this postmodern era of intense globalization and rampant appropriation. The “a3” series also raises questions about representation and authenticity.
One of my favorite vistas in Showcase and Tell beautifully illustrates one of the exhibition’s implied themes: the celebration of female power (both creative and procreative). Jenelsie Walden Holloway’s bold, fluid, abstract painting Inner Shade of Pale (1970) provides a compelling backdrop for figurative works from Africa. These sculptures address female strength and power, but they also illustrate cultural ideals of feminine beauty and comportment. They, and other works in the exhibit, remind us that women in all cultures are expected to look and behave in certain ways, and that art has the ability both to support and challenge worldviews.
While Showcase and Tell chronicles Spelman College’s visual arts history, in its artistic and conceptual richness it accomplishes more than this relatively straightforward goal. The exhibition’s carefully considered introduction invites viewers in, encouraging them to look, to think, and to discover.
The exhibition Showcase and Tell: Treasures from the Spelman College Permanent Collection is on view through Sat. May 16.