From the beginning, family was at the heart of why Harriet and Harmon Kelley began collecting African-American art 30 years ago.
As curatorial advisor Lowery Stokes Sims notes in her catalogue essay for Something to Say: The McNay Presents 100 Years of African American Art at the McNay Art Museum, part of the Kelleys’ reasoning was to use the “bare walls of [their] newly built home” to introduce their daughters to art.
Today, the work of Harmon’s niece, Lauren Kelley, greets visitors to Something to Say as they enter the exhibition. Her Pickin’ digital photograph from 1999 shows the artist wearing an “afro” of molded hair picks she designed, their handles shaped like the raised fist of the 1960s Black Power movement.
Lauren Kelley studied video art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Harriet said during a walking tour of the exhibition. British video artist Isaac Julien is also represented on the same wall by a still photograph of an urbane black woman sporting a neat afro on a Baltimore street.
Something to Say brings together 57 artworks, joining the Kelley collection with works from other local collections and work by African-American artists collected by the McNay over the past several years. The show is a featured Tricentennial partner event.
A concurrent exhibition, 30 Americans, has toured widely and comes to the McNay as a selection from the larger original exhibition by Rene Paul Barilleaux, McNay head of curatorial affairs.
Barilleaux said his selection was based in part on spanning generations of artists – from Robert Colescott, born in 1925 (died 2009), to Aaron Fowler, born in 1988. 30 Americans will run alongside Something to Say, as will a suite of screen prints of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture by Jacob Lawrence.
These special African-American themed exhibitions open Thursday, Feb. 8 and run through May 6.
For Harriet Kelley, Something to Say is the continuation of a conversation about black artists in the United States that began in Texas 42 years ago. Two Centuries of Black American Art was a “groundbreaking” 1976 survey exhibition, Stokes Sims said, one that toured to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts on the occasion of the national Bicentennial.
That exhibition’s curator, David C. Driskell, might agree with the titles and concepts behind both McNay exhibitions, one of which employs the term “African American,” and the other which refers to its black artists as simply “Americans.”
Quoted in a 1977 New York Times article, Driskell said “We don’t go around saying white art, but I think it’s very important for us to keep saying black art until it becomes recognized as American art.”
In a synopsis of the original Rubell Family Collection exhibition catalogue, the decision to remove race specificity from the 30 Americans title was made “because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.”
One of the largest and most elaborate works in the Something to Say exhibition is Procession, a 2005 shadowbox painting by Radcliffe Bailey. A number of oars and trees break the surface of a body of water, creating multicolor ripples, and collaged images of African tribal art are interspersed against modernist color blocks. Grotesque anglers swim among goldfish and koi, and a black hand grasping a paper laurel reaches toward a line of numbered nautical flags overhanging the water, and a spiderous net at left.
Procession evokes the end of the treacherous Middle Passage, the stream-trails of the underground railroad, and other markers of the journey of Africans who became Americans against their will.
As a whole, the paintings, photographs, and sculptures of African-American artists in Something to Say and 30 Americans display the complexity of personality, identity, and experience of the past 100 years and beyond.
The exhibitions open Thursday during regular museum hours. Free H-E-B Thursday nights run 4-9 p.m., but note that a $10 fee still applies to the special exhibitions, though the rest of the museum is accessible to visitors during free hours.