Soulsville

Dixon celebrates legacy of Black artists throughout the 20th century

Black Artists in America: From the Great Depression to Civil Rights” is the first in a series of three exhibits, all of which deal with the Black American experience throughout the 20th century. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens is hosting the first installment—focusing on 1929 through the mid-1950s—on view through January 2, 2022.

“This exhibition starts with the collapse of the stock market,” said Chantal Drake, the Dixon’s director of development and communications. “And then, of course, through Jim Crow, Brown vs. Board of Education, and everything that was happening with Black people in this country at that time.”

The idea for this project has been in the works for the past three years. The curatorial team's initial plan was to cover just a fifty-year period, but they quickly realized that range wouldn’t give the public a true sense of the contribution of African-American artists.

“Dr. Jenkins encouraged us to expand the exhibit to represent the work of earlier artists who influenced the work of the later artists,” said Drake. “And so, one exhibition quickly turned into three.”

Dr. Earnestine Jenkins, professor of art history at the University of Memphis and guest curator for this project, said it represents a variety of different art styles Black American artists used in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

The next show will cover works from about 1956 through 1976. The third installment will continue into 1977 through the beginning of the 21st Century.

Permanent collections at the Dixon focus mainly on the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements, including artists such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Mary Cassatt.

This exhibition has a much broader scope.

“Many of the pieces are from the social realism movement. There are also works of abstract expressionism, which was the style that began to be dominant after World War Two, and surrealism, which is a European modernist style that deals with the imagination,” said Jenkins.

The show features the works of well-known Black artists such as Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Archibald Motley. There has also been a special effort to include works by lesser-known artists and female artists such as Augusta Savage and Beulah Woodard. The exhibit features the work of painters, sculptors, and printmakers.

Some of the artists in this project have close ties to Memphis. Additionally, the Dixon worked with local HBCU LeMoyne-Owen College to include some of the pieces from their collection among the pieces in this show.

Memphis’ Second Congregational Church of Christ even allowed the Dixon to include its historic mural in the show. Drake said that’s a very big deal, since the mural hasn’t left the church since Reginald Morris painted it during his time teaching at LeMoyne-Owen in the 1950s.

The exhibit features many other works that are rarely shown, especially in this area of the country.

“Normally, this region of the upper South doesn't have too many exhibitions like this,” Jenkins said. “There are about 57 artworks in the exhibition, and most of those pieces have never been shown in this area of the South.”

Response to this project has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Everybody that sees it, loves it,” said Jenkins. “It can play an important role in terms of how Memphis is striving to become this important center for the arts. And so there's been some progress made in terms of race and equity in the arts, especially in reference to Black artists and organizations.”

Drake hopes this series will help change the way Memphians think about Black artists, art in general, and the Dixon museum.

“It takes the stigma of art being ‘for certain people’ out of the conversation,” said Drake. “I think people consider us the museum that only specializes or displays certain types of art. That's not true.”

“This is not the first example of an exhibition we've had around Black subject matter,” she said, “and definitely not the last.”

Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.