Photographer Gordon Parks' "Ethel Shariff in Chicago" depicts the daughter of religious activist Elijah Muhammad in a nun's habit, standing at the fore of rows of black women in the same attire. In Parks' "American Gothic," the late lensman who documented the civil rights movement and Jim Crow segregation in the rural South parodies Grant Wood's iconic painting, capturing a black worker with a mop and broom in both hands standing in front of the American flag.
Such depictions of black identity, expressed through a sense of empowerment and strength, are prominent in "Say It Loud!" the Norton Museum of Art exhibition bowing Thursday, Dec. 27. The showcase of 40 works by black artists, pulled from the West Palm Beach museum's permanent collection, no doubt borrows its title from a song by funk-soul giant James Brown, show curator Cheryl Brutvan says. But the title, she admits, did not come easy.
"We tried hard to come up with something that would unite all these generations of black contemporary artists. Something provocative that says more than, 'Here's a bunch of works,' " says Brutvan, also the Norton's curator of contemporary art. " 'Say it Loud!' is a moment of black empowerment in the media, it's a moment of western identity, and it's a moment of African identity. But it's also more than that."
The exhibit begins, appropriately, with the motherland: South African artist Mary Sibande's elaborate fiberglass-and-cotton dress "… Of Prosperity" is saturated with blue (a nod to her country's blue-collar workforce) with orange accents, alluding to the region's historical Dutch occupation. A "Soundsuit," a furry fabric sculpture covered in white buttons and adorned with a red target on its face, belongs to Nick Cave (the Chicago performance artist, not the Australian punk-rocker), who began designing the wearable, gender-cloaking pieces immediately after the 1993 Rodney King trial.
Despite the many sculptures, etchings, wool tapestries and other mixed-media works from painters Jacob Lawrence and Charles Henry Alston, sculptor Augusta Savage and other art luminaries, photography curator Tim Wride says roughly half the collection is photographs. Harlem Renaissance portrait photographer James Van Der Zee depicts in his prints the shutterbug's own photo studio, images of evangelists seated at a table and a portrait of a hair-product mogul. Meanwhile, Nigerian photog J.D. Okhai Ojeikere's "Hairstyles" series of six images depicts various ceremonial hairstyles of Nigerian men and women, some of which resemble tarantula legs, a royal crown and flower buds.
"These were some of the go-to photographers that everyone acknowledged, and oh, yeah, they happened to be black men," Wride says. "How I read these images — the civil rights movement, African hair — is that they're all types of identity formation. They are all the defining moments of black culture."
Thursday night's opening reception, part of the museum's regular Art After Dark gathering, will feature Motown-inspired music by Stuart-based Gregg Jackson and the Mojo Band, who will cover Brown and Otis Redding; and an electric blues set from Norton employee Dave Harris, who will handle guitar, harmonica and keyboards.
Say It Loud!
When: Thursday, Dec. 27 through March 3 (opening reception is 6-9 p.m.)
Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach
Cost: Free on Dec. 27; $5-$12 afterward
Contact: 561-832-5196 or Norton.org