African American Art exhibiting at Tennessee State Museum

From the collection of the Tennessee State Museum. Aaron Douglas, Gloria Ridley, oil on canvas, 1967 photo: Jerry Atnip

From the collection of the Tennessee State Museum. Aaron Douglas, Gloria Ridley, oil on canvas, 1967
photo: Jerry Atnip

An exhibition containing rarely seen works by nationally acclaimed African American artists opened at the Tennessee State Museum February 11. The exhibition, entitled ‘A Creative Legacy: African American Arts in Tennessee,’ contains 46 works created by 16 artists who were born and/or worked in Tennessee. Aaron Douglas, Greg Ridley, William Edmondson, Bessie Harvey, Barbara Bullock, David Driskell, Samuel Dunson, Alicia Henry, George Hunt, Simon Jackson, Ted Jones, Michael McBride, James Threalkill, Vannoy Streeter, and Joseph and Beauford Delaney are represented. All of the works are part of the collection of the Tennessee State Museum and this exhibition, which is free to the public, will be on view in the museum’s Changing Galleries through August 31.

William Edmondson, born in Nashville around 1870, the son of former slaves, was the first African American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. Edmondson began carving tombstones for members of the local African American community in the early 1930s and also made small sculptures. He often chose religious topics for his artwork and became known for his spare, minimalist style.

Aaron Douglas was part of the Harlem Renaissance movement, an important movement of African American artistic spirit in music, dance, cinema, painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking during the 1920s and 1930s, and served as chairman of the Fisk University art department. His friend and colleague Greg Ridley enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the arts which earned him honors as a painter, sculptor, and teacher. Ridley’s highest acclaim came late in his career for his mastery of metal arts, especially copper friezes. Three of his copper repousses will be on exhibit along with his final work, ‘Tuzar (The Pyramid),’ an acrylic on paper painted in 2003.

Bessie Harvey was born in 1929 in Georgia, and as a young adult moved to east Tennessee in 1950. Harvey began to create sculptures using materials such as tree branches, paint, shells, and human hair, often using Biblical themes as inspiration. Harvey usually worked with found objects that ‘spoke’ to her, and called out to her to make them into what she saw in them. ‘Cat,’ included in the exhibit, is one such piece. By the 1980s she had gained a reputation as a distinguished folk artist. Later she produced a series of works known as ‘Africa in America’ intended as an educational piece and a chronicle of African American history.

Like his younger brother Joseph, Beauford Delaney studied under Lloyd Branson in Knoxville. Beauford lived in New York City for a time, but due to the triple prejudice against him for being southern, black, and gay, he moved to Paris, France, where he became a respected artist. He is remembered for his work with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as his later works in abstract expressionism following his move to Europe in the 1950s. A 1964 self-portrait of the artist is included in the exhibit.