Although it is being billed as "an educational and cultural contribution," "The Great Beautiful Black Women Collection" -- the set of 13 portraits that was commissioned by the Johnson Products Co., Inc. -- is another ad. And looks it.
The first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a large wall label in which the Johnson name appears nine times.
The 13 portraits by Paul Collins, an accomplished illustrator, in style resemble the images seen on movie posters and mass market paperbacks. Collins, who has done many portraits in West Africa and Harlem, is perhaps best known for the mural he did on the life of Gerald R. Ford for the Grand Rapids airport. He also portrayed Shaka, King of the Zulus, for Anheuser-Busch, a company, like Johnson Products, which feels it can make money by encouraging black pride through the arty ad.
"The Great Beautiful Black Women Collection" is both an act of homage and a hype. The 13 women shown were selected by committee. Some of them -- poet Phillis Wheatley, Washington educator Mary Church Terrell -- are insufficiently well known, and deserve more attention. Others -- Marian Anderson, Coretta Scott King and the Queen of Sheba (whose face Collins has invented) -- are not short of fame. One of them, Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919), became America's first black millionaire by selling hair dressing.
The catalogue biographies of these and other women have been written with a term paper's grace. There is something smug about this show. It peculiarly recalls the heroic tractor drivers portrayed by the Chinese.
"The Great Beautiful Black Women Collection," whose Washington presentation has been cosponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, will remain on view through January at the Museum of African Art, 316-318 A St. NE.