As late as the 1980s, many mainstream curators and scholars still did not take folk art seriously or ignored it entirely, and it was rare to find works by African-American artists of any kind on museum walls.
So, it was a milestone moment in 1982 when the now-defunct but once-influential Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., brought these two under-examined spheres together in an exhibition titled “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980.”
‘Post Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980-2016’ When: July 15, 2016-Jan. 2, 2017 Where: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Suggested admission: $5 Info: art.org
The Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, a non-profit art center at 756 N. Milwaukee, devoted entirely to self-taught and outsider artists, will mark its 25th anniversary with a similarly titled follow-up: “Post Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980-2016.”
To organize this new show, which runs July 5, 2016, through Jan. 2, 2017, it turned to artist, educator and curator Faheem Majeed, who calls himself an “outsider to the world of outsider art.” He served as executive director and curator of the South Side Community Art Center in 2013-14 and was featured in 2015 in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Majeed has spent the past six months interviewing Intuit members, visiting curators in this field at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and other institutions and meeting with the organizers of the 1982 show – Jane Livingston and John Beardsley.
“I’m in an interesting space,” he said, “of being a student who’s also critiquing and highlighting not only the artwork but also the people who surround the artwork, because part of the reason the artwork is so special is the community of people who supported it, pushed it and made it part of their lives.”
“Post Black Folk Art” will feature about 47 artists, including many of the 20 who were showcased in the 1982 show plus some who were excluded then and others who have come along later. Among them will be familiar names like Thornton Dial, William Hawkins and Bill Traylor and notable Chicago figures such as William Dawson, Mr. Imagination and Wesley Willis.
Majeed has made a point of including women, who, other than quiltmakers, are often overlooked in such folk-art surveys. “It amazes me that even in a marginalized space we tend to marginalize more,” he said. Among those to be spotlighted are Minnie Evans, Clementine Hunter and Nellie Mae Rowe.
On view will be around 100 works in all, drawn mainly from the holdings of 10-12 Intuit supporters, including some whose collecting was inspired in part by the 1982 show. “We have a good handle on it, but getting everyone lined up has been quite the ballet,” Majeed said.
Accompanying the show will be an extensive series of classes, discussions, presentations and interviews, which Majeed hopes will enhance its impact. “I’m not trying to please everyone,” he said. “I’m just trying to get people to engage and have a conversation.”
Many questions cropped up around the original show, such as: What are the differences — if any – among folk, outsider and self-taught art? Should any distinction at all be made between folk and mainstream art? What is different about black folk art?
“By labeling it something,” Majeed said of this work, “it puts it in that box. It marginalizes the artist. But at the same time, without that label, maybe we wouldn’t be having a conversation about museum practices. Maybe people wouldn’t have gotten mad. And maybe it wouldn’t have been special enough to get to the thing that’s special.”
Adding to the controversy surrounding the traveling exhibition was its venue in Chicago. Rather than being shown at the Art Institute of Chicago or another art institution, it was presented April 14-July 15, 1984, at the Field Museum of Natural History, a choice that some saw as a slap in the face to the featured artists.
Majeed said none of these debates have been settled in 34 years since the Corcoran show, and more have cropped up since. He tried to allude to the unresolved issues with the latest show’s intentionally ambiguous title.
On one hand, it can be interpreted to refer to “post-black” art, a term said to be coined by curator Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon in the late 1990s. In a 2001 exhibition catalog, Golden defined post-black artists as “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped . . .in redefining complex notions of blackness.” On the other hand, the title can be seen simply as a reference to the era after the 1982 show.
“I don’t want to be redundant,” Majeed said. “I want to try and have a new conversation that adds to the history.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.