When Bethune Museum-Archives assistant director Guy McElroy told the curator of a local, well-established museum that he was planning an exhibit of works by Washington black women artists, the curator asked: "What could you come up with?" -- an attitude McElroy finds common in the cultural establishment.
*"The mainstream doesn't know that they black artists are there," he says, because schools teach little about Afro-American art and works by black artists are exhibited too rarely.
Despite doubts from the "mainstream" establishment and some difficulty finding funding, McElroy and museum director Bettye Collier Thomas managed to come up with quite a number of works for their current juried show, "Black Women Visual Artists in Washington, D.C.," on view there through January. In fact, of the 60 who responded to the invitations sent to artists, art galleries and art schools to submit work for the show, only 14 could be included, due primarily to the lack of exhibit space. Four other artists, no longer living, also were included to provide a complete historical survey of black women's art in the nation's capital from 1900-1985.
Because the exhibit spans such a long period and encompasses a variety of media, it forgoes any particular theme, seeking only to present the experiences that shaped the works of 18 local black women artists. To qualify, those exhibited needed only to have had formal art training and to have exhibited in professional galleries before.
"We wanted to present a group of people fully equivalent to artists exhibited in large art galleries and museums," says McElroy. "And we wanted to raise the question to other galleries: 'Why have you not paid attention to these people?' "
The works displayed reflect the artistic styles and struggles of the past 85 years. May Howard Jackson, Alma Thomas, Hilda Wilkinson Brown, Lois Jones and Elizabeth Catlett, who began their careers in the early part of this century, are often criticized by their younger counterparts for being too conservative. For the most part, they tended to adapt aspects of realism or postimpressionism, though Brown experimented with cubism and Thomas with color patterns.
Most of these women taught art at Howard University, the District of Columbia Teachers College (now part of the University of the District of Columbia) and the city's public schools, pursuing their creative work outside of their jobs. Through their teaching and work, these earlier artists paved the way for a new generation of artists, including Malkia Roberts, Sylvia Snowden, Winnie Owens-Hart, Viola Leak and Debra Attiya Melton, who found greater opportunities in recent years.
The Bethune Museum exhibit first and foremost is about talented artists. It also is about black women and their experiences. Snowden's bold, thickly applied colors suggest the violence on the M Street corridor. Leak's "Sunday Sunder," a fabric sculpture, depicts a black nanny holding a white child and two black children, perhaps her own. The nanny seems to be losing her grip on her children as she sits against the backdrop of a church window. Owens-Hart, Melton and Roberts borrow motifs and themes found in African art. Owens-Hart's ceramic mask "Karma Series 'Take I' " was directly influenced by African Mende dance masks, and Roberts' recent works use brilliant color and abstract patterns also found in African art.
McElroy and Thomas say this exhibit is part of the Bethune Museum's effort to promote greater public awareness of black women's history and contributions in general. And they hope artists will donate their papers and work to the museum so that they will not be lost to future generations.