African American Exhibit at PMA

On January 19, 2015, Diartspora Gallery launched a campaign with Indiegogo to raise funds to restore and re-furbish the many paintings of the collection which have suffered neglect. A lot of these works were salvaged from some pretty rough circumstances, and have the rips, stains, chips and grime to prove it. In some cases, the patina of wear, especially on the frames, actually complement the images depicted. But for the most part, a professional restoration and cleaning is needed to bring out the best in these paintings; to re-vivify their soul.
A week ago, Katie Pfeiffer and I saw the “Representation” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; showcasing 200 years of African-American Art. It was eye-opening. The prices displayed ranged from the painterly masterpieces of Henry Ossawa Tanner to the idiosyncratic folk figures by Bill Traylor . There were abstracts, realistic portraits, impressionistic pieces, collages and cut-outs. All were striking.
There were also photographs, sketches, sculptures, and even furniture. As I walked through the exhibit, I became more and more aware how much all of the images were enhanced by virtue of their staging and framing. The identical picture – if surrounded by a warped or yellowed matte, or ill-fitting, spotted frame – would simply not present as well. Artful and immaculately tailored borders around an image unblemished by wear guide the eye to focus and see the essence the artist intended; the opposite detracts.
I have lived with these paintings for a long time now. And have gotten used to their sometimes weathered appearance. But the “Representation” show was a revelation. I realized that many of the pieces in the Diartspora collection were imbued with the same power, charm, and beauty as those on the Art Museum walls, but that their sketchy condition sometimes obscured that similarity. The pieces could be repaired and given new life. But it would cost. Money which I don’t have.
And so Katie and I decided to make an appeal to the art and culture lovers who benefit the offerings showcased on the Indiegogo website. This is a project, a sum, which indeed will take a village to raise. Any and every contribution is welcome and much appreciated. The phenomenon of group participation in creating and supporting different projects, thanks to the Internet, will definitely be what will take the Diartspora collection to the level it needs and deserves. We are grateful for the early responders for starting things off, and remain hopeful that the benefits of restoring this art will be understood and supported by many yet to come.

The Beginning

I’ve been asked how it happened that I started collecting black art. The root of the answer reaches all the way back to my childhood. I grew up in a household rich in both music and art. From my father’s side of the family came the love of making music; Dad could play 5 instruments and always kept a few others around for future exploration. My mother inherited her mother’s exceptional gift for painting, and was never happier than when working in her studio. The subtle scent of oil paints and turpentine that resided in every square inch of our house apparently seeped into my sensibilities as well.

Although my own creative impulses leaned towards the musical, an appreciation for art – and especially for those works possessing that elusive quality “soul” – gradually formed in my awareness. It became ever easier to distinguish works with it from those without it. Like the judge who famously said of pornography “…I know it when I see it…,” I, too, knew good art when I saw it.

And eighteen years ago, tucked in a corner of a now-defunct thrift store in West Philadelphia, I saw it. Actually,the artist Katie Pfeiffer, saw it first. She made a beeline for it, pulled it out from the shadows and showed it to me. It was a colorful, heavily textured image of a black woman wearing a headdress and field clothes, cutting down tall plants with a machete. It was painted on a masonite board, and it was only many years later that I discovered the title written in pencil in a corner….Caddie in the Cane Field. It wasn’t sophisticated, it wasn’t masterful, nor accomplished. But it was simple, raw, honest, and beautiful. When I took it on a whim for a free appraisal at an antique show some time later, I was told that even though the painting had one corner that was damaged, it was still a very desirable example of Southern folk art.

I started seeing artwork with similar properties here and there in the course of working in the African-American community of West Philadelphia. In display windows, sidewalk sales, flea markets and home studios, I saw images which were new to me, and, I think, to many others as well. The thought occurred to me: any native of the Northern climes of the Western Hemisphere can go to any of the many great museums and see depictions of people that look much like him or her self in the great majority of the paintings. The rare presence of a person of color in a work is often set within the context of slavery or servitude.

I realized that I wasn’t aware of any place existing where black folk could go and view a similar grouping of pictures of people like themselves. As I started collecting artwork and got to meet and know a few of the artists, I began to feel a sense of purpose in trying to assemble such a grouping of images. I felt that there existed a need to establish such a panorama; where the faces and works of those who often go unseen in society could come to light. Thus began a search and a journey which resulted in the works of art presented in the Diartspora Gallery.