Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art opened June 27th at the University Museum of Texas Southern University as part of a two year, seven city tour.
The exhibit, curated by TSU’s Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, is a culmination of Grant and Tamia Hill’s eight-year odyssey of active art collecting, represented here in 46 distinct works of sculpture, drawing, painting and printmaking. The selection is a dynamic one, consisting of major pieces by Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and John Biggers, as well as many others.
Hill’s aesthetics lean towards the Harlem Renaissance, which he studied at Duke University while majoring in history (before going on to become an NBA triple-double all star at Detroit, and later Orlando — yes, this is that Grant Hill). Hill readily admits that his love for art was fostered through his parents, particularly his father Calvin. Indeed, a major theme recurring throughout the show is the power of family. It is a power evidenced by an intimate and generous sensibility and a quiet, confident elegance.
The many works of Elizabeth Catlett included in the show bear this out nicely. Sculptures such as Seated Woman and Child and Standing Woman and Child (in two versions) reference Djenne carving, with sensuous curves juxtaposing block-like solidity. All three bronzes are portraits of strong women in maternal roles, and like Catlett’s several prints in the exhibition, celebrate domestic labor as noble and necessary. Filtered through a Post-Modern conceit, Catlett’s ideas and aesthetics might seem formulaic or hokey, but one cannot help but admire the unquestionable polish of her oeuvre.
More contemporary are the frenetic collages of Romare Bearden, whose eclectic interior and urban scenes are alive with color and sound. Hill, a pianist himself, sees Bearden’s work as a kind of visual music, the many figures of his compositions beating out a cadence of the everyday — morning breakfasts, quiet baths and boisterous conversation. His works on paper have all the impressionistic beauty of Degas or Lautrec, but without the taint of intrusion. In Bearden’s work, the artist himself, as well as the viewer, become a part of the composition.
This is no Saatchi collection, nor is it meant to be. No work in Hill’s compilation screams out for unmerited attention; indeed, the strategies these artists use are often derived from what many viewers might find to be antiquated precedents. Much like the works of first-generation feminists, the conceptual approaches to empowerment and identity in this show are dominated by a kind of metaphoric universality that doesn’t necessarily resonate with a contemporary audience. That said, any debate as to whether this collection is relevant within the context of Post-Modern theory ultimately doesn’t really matter, inasmuch as it clearly has no pretext of being anything other than a sincere encapsulation of a specific era in African American visual art.
And subtle success abounds. Paintings like The Letter and Woman by the Seashore, both by Hughie Lee-Smith, echo the heartfelt contemplation evident throughout the show. Lee-Smith’s small genre scenes mix hope and sobriety in compelling fashion, as does the work of Edward Jackson, whose portrait, Malcolm X, depicts a warm and optimistic study of the resolute American hero. Perhaps the gem of the show, John Coleman’s Coffee Break, of 1993, functions on a threadbare simplicity. More than the sum of its parts, it is infused with a routine magnificence. Coleman’s folk sensibility complements his imagery, and functions in the same earnest fashion as his characters
But for all its sanguinity, Something All Our Own does not trap itself in the sublime. In fact, domesticity does have its haunting side. One finds it in Bearden’s democratic communal scenes, ripe with as much burden as hope. Arthello Beck Jr.’s Confrontation, a seminal work in the show, is a Cubist allusion to the struggle for social equality. Catlett’s print series, For My People, is a strong reminder of how crisis and joy and inextricably woven throughout life. Her series illustrates the poem of the same name by close friend Margaret Walker, which also gives title to this exhibition. Catlett’s interpretation of the written work brings together the triumphs and trials of African American experience, but ultimately transcends this specificity by offering common human experiences that bind all people — companionship, isolation, pain and perseverance.
Something All Our Own is a very specific collection of art. Forsaken in Hill’s appetite is anything voicing a counter-cultural edge or rawness of expression. Even the political work in the show is historic, vindicated as righteous over time and cleansed of any controversy. This collection, much like its collector, is earnest and reserved; but despite its conservatism, it represents an important passage through an era of American cultural history. Perhaps even more compelling than the exhibition itself is Hill’s ultimate vision for its efficacy — guided school tours and national artistic scholarship awards are a major outreach component of its programming. Ultimately, Hill sees art as a catalyst for positive transformation, a sentiment reaffirmed in the voices of the artists in his collection. In a clouded nation, it’s a refreshing reminder.
Images courtesy the artists, Grant Hill, and Texas Southern University.
Darryl Lauster is an artist living in Houston.