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Canon of African-American Artists at the Smithsonian

WI Staff Writer | 8/22/2012, 3:56 p.m.

There are names that nearly everyone knows - Romare Bearden, Washington's own Alma Thomas and Gordon Parks, and names that do not conjure any semblance of association in this multi-faceted exhibit. "Untitled" by Frederick Eversley defies the laws of nature. A black, highly polished disc gives the impression of containing a light source in its center, but is really a sophisticated corralling of ambient light that appears to be generated by a light bulb. When one looks at the back and realizes that there is no light source contained in the sculpture, it becomes evident that this is a very well devised optical illusion.

Sculptor Melvin Edwards' "Tambo," at first appears to be a conglomeration of welded tools lumped together, but on close observation enhanced by descriptive wall labels, one realizes that the life and history of South African liberation hero Oliver Tambo are expressed through each of the tools and apparatus included in the work.

"Visitors will be struck not only by the power of these artworks, but also by the variety of the pieces on display," exhibit curator Virginia Mecklenburg said. "So many new movements and styles grew out of the tumult of the 20th century, and these works reflect that diversity."

In addition to the exhibit, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has created an educational website, "Oh, Freedom! Teaching African American Art through American Art at the Smithsonian," that serves as a resource offering insight into the Civil Rights movement for educators by creating connections between art, history and the social change that permeated the era. A blog, "Eye Level," takes a behind-the-scenes look at the museum's conservation efforts discussing preparation of Eversley's "Untitled" for exhibit, as well as the works of Richard Hunt, Jones and Renee Stout's installation, "The Colonel's Cabinet."

"African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond" is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, located in the National Historic Landmark building at Eighth and F Streets, N.W., through September 3rd.

But if one can't catch the last waning days of this remarkable assemblage of works by 43 diverse African-American artists, the exhibit will embark on a national tour starting at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., on September 28 through January 6, 2013. It will go to four more venues around the United States through May 2014. Visit the museum's website, americanart.si.edu, for additional venues and more information. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is open every day except for December 25th from 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.