“Retrieving the Life” Exhibit Coming to ACP This Fall
“AFRICAN SKY”: This oil painting by James Wilson Edwards will be included in “Retrieving the Life and Art of James Wilson Edwards and a Circle of Black Artists,” on view at the Arts Council of Princeton October 14 through December 3.
The Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) will present “Retrieving the Life and Art of James Wilson Edwards and a Circle of Black Artists” this October. The exhibition reveals how Black artist/teachers were integral and influential members in a predominantly white regional community in the last quarter of the 20th century. While there have been significant exhibitions of a few contemporary Black artists during recent efforts by museums and galleries to become more diverse, this is one of the first exhibitions to explore the historical context from which these artists emerged.
This exhibition focuses on five late 20th-century master artists who lived and worked within 25 miles of each other in the geographic region from Princeton to New Hope, Pa.: James Wilson Edwards, Rex Goreleigh, Hughie Lee-Smith, Selma Hortense Burke, and Wendell T. Brooks. These Black artists represent a diverse and vibrant regional arts community largely unknown in contemporary American art history.
Goreleigh, Lee-Smith, and Burke began their careers working for the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (FAP) created during the Great Depression of the 1930s to provide employment for artists. Remarkably for the time, the FAP included both Black and women artists. Its heady mix of art and politics gave Black artists a sense of racial pride, confidence that they could become successful as artists, and a belief that they, too, could help create a better society. The careers of these three artists reflect the principles learned in their early years. They, like other Black artists who came out of the FAP era, communicated these principles to others, thus shaping the careers of younger artists including Edwards and Brooks. They were successful in their artistic work and used the arts to create educational institutions where whites and Blacks mingled on equal terms — usually, the only such places in those communities. Their impact on their communities has not been generally acknowledged until this exhibition.
Nearly all of the works in this exhibition come from private collections, highlighting the importance of collectors of color in restoring Black and Brown artists to American art history and how their collecting sheds light on the systemic racism of the American art world. Recent attention to diversity in museum collections has revealed that only 1.2 percent of the holdings are by African American artists. If it weren’t for collectors of color, work by many Black and Brown artists might have disappeared into obscurity.
Co-curators Judith K. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita, Department of Visual Arts, Rutgers University, and Rhinold Ponder, artist, activist, writer, lawyer, and founder of Art Against Racism, said, “This has been a magnificent voyage of discovery about the lives and roles in art history of Black artists who have largely been forgotten or ignored as well as a reminder of the significance of Black collectors in preserving and promoting the history of Black artists and ensuring that they are eventually remembered for their contributions. We trust that our efforts here encourage others to restore Black artists and arts communities to their rightful places in American national and regional histories.”
“Retrieving the Life and Art of James Wilson Edwards and a Circle of Black Artists” will be on view in the Arts Council of Princeton’s Taplin Gallery October 14 through December 3. A panel discussion — Art Collecting as an Act of Love, Resistance, and Preservation of History — will take place on Friday, October 14 at 4 p.m., featuring lenders to the exhibition as guest speakers. An opening reception will immediately follow from 5 to 7 p.m. A full schedule of programming will accompany the run of the show; view a list of free events at artscouncilof
The exhibition was made possible by a Grants for Arts Projects award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and additional support from Lynne & Joe Kossow, Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Dr. Ferris Olin, Princeton University Humanities Council, Princeton University Art Museum, Petrucci Family Foundation, and Ryan Lilienthal & Rachel Stark.
Arts Council of Princeton is located at 102 Witherspoon Street. For more information, visit artscouncilofprinceton.org or call (609) 924-8777.