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Sunday, September 05, 2010

On the Seen in Philadelphia…

New Narratives and Reinterpretations was the theme of an informal panel discussion that explored the trend among African American artists to use historic text and images in their narratives, examine new perspectives and utilize new creative formats. I first learned of the event from George-McKinley Martin‘s blog, the Black Art Project— a great place to keep up with all that’s going on across the country. The moderator of the panel was Professor Keith Morrison, Tyler School of Fine Art, and included Tanya Murphy Dodd, of Philadelphia, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum from Baltimore, Leticia Huckaby from Ft. Worth, and Nsenga Knight of Brooklyn.

August 7 was one of those “this-is-why-we-live-in-Philadelphia summer evenings”---immensely walkable and enjoyable: people on the street strolling, with great energy which flowed right into the Glass Lobby Gallery at Brandywine Workshop’s Print Shop and Archive. Located in Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts District at 728 South Broad Street, the Workshop opened its printmaking studios to guests and participants, who had come to mingle, share and incorporate new knowledge, meet new folk, and reconnect with old friends. I finally remembered the old Woody Allen quote: “eighty per cent of life is just showing up!” Allan Edmunds, the Executive Director made the evening sound so exciting that I could not bear to have said I could have gone and didn’t; good friend Aziza Gibson-Hunter asked that I make sure to tell her about it.

So… I got the bus schedule, checked around for hotels, and booked a room at the Latham that beat the price at the Holiday Inn— nothing like cash flow as a sign from the Universe! I felt even more at home upon seeing Otis Robertson, a long-time Board member at Brandywine, and frequent presence here in Washington, DC. He is a regular at the Millennium Arts Salon, and worked with Lynn Sylvester and Margie Bates to establish a Friends of Brandywine chapter here as well. John Dowell, Professor at Temple University was in attendance, as was A.M. Weaver, who is curating a retrospective of E. J. Montgomery’s work at Morgan State University’s James E. Lewis Museum in October, 2010.

Keith Morrison, the former dean and currently a professor at the Tyler School of Fine Art provided context for the panel, stating that the convergence of the artists at Brandywine prompted organizing the panel around the notion of the past is not really the past at all—it’s all around us. He stated that we cannot avoid history and that our definition of self shifts as we reengage with historical documents.

Tanya Murphy Dodd, shared it was the realization that all the elders of her family were passing which stirred her to “want to know who these people were”, and document their existence before it was forgotten and lost”….One strain of her work incorporated her photography—she “still uses film” and actually makes her own cameras! She was interested in, and motivated by “the recovery of history”, and felt that being a storyteller she presented an “evolving definition of truth” in her work.

Letitia Huckaby of Houston stated that much of her inspiration and use of textiles---quilt pieces and remnants, old fabric and flour sacks---stemmed from a desire to affirm and validate people who were often seen and treated as if they were “leftover and tossed away scraps”. Her wedding dresses made from yoyo quilt pieces emanated regard for the work, creativity and practicality of the women who created this still-popular quilting piece, and she incorporated traditional African American quilt pieces—Blocks and Strikes, and the Double Ring quilts; she also spent time with the legendary quilters of Gee’s Bend. Her “conversation with historical documents” helps her grasp the meaning behind them, and shared her deep identification with the pieces, “they are so personal”.

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum of Baltimore, who was born in Botswana, and has done installations in such places as Johannesburg, South Africa, used the creation of an alter ego, Asme” to chart and document journeys across time and space. Like many mythic characters, what Native Americans, Africans, accompanied Asme and other pre-conversion cultures would call a “totem”-the Canadian grey goose. The traditional meaning, or “medicine” of the goose is that of travel, instinctive guidance, or direction. At one point, Asme has to sacrifice her goose in order to survive; one only hopes that there will be some way to resurrect her…Asme travels took her far way from home to new and strange lands where she had to recreate herself and make meaning of strange new settings and beings---a very telling theme in the history of Africans in the Diaspora….

Finally, Nsenga Knight of Brooklyn presented photographs and compositions based on Islamic and New World motifs and incorporating iconic figures in African-American history, and experienced “art as a political platform for community activism and awareness” because we need to revisit the past. She spoke of the need to revisit the past because its residue persists over time and leaves their mark on us…

Audience members asked panelists about how they saw their work evolving, what were the current challenges they faced, and, of course, when and where was the next exhibit going to be.

I found affirmation and a sense of community as an artist and a historian. I will confess that I share the same need to affirm my ancestors and reinterpret the ways in which their lives and experiences have been defined and articulated by the larger society. History is being rewritten and experienced but, more importantly, truth that is crushed to earth does and will rise again. The panel sparked me to reflect in these ways.
• What did the lives of our ancestors mean to them; is it different from the meanings that we attribute to them?
• How do we think of what their lives were and meant?
• Just how did they view their world, and all its complexity—and how did they respond to it?
• Did they respond in the ways we thought they did, or the “historians” –and we do need to ask ourselves which historians— depicted and interpreted?
• What is the legacy of the past—in all spheres-social, politics, economics, spiritually-- and how are we building upon it?
• How do we experience the river of our roots running through us? What do they water; where are the dry spots, and how do we direct the healing streams to them?
I look forward to continuing this discussion, and certainly my next visit to the Brandywine Workshop.

Anne Bouie is an artist, writer, educator and historian. She works and lives in Washington, D.C., and may be reached at

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