Abstract and African-American: A special exhibit at La Salle University Art Museum

Abstract and African-American: A special exhibit at La Salle University Art Museum

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In a small, white-walled room within La Salle University’s Art Museum, nearly two dozen overhead lights illuminate individual rows of artwork in the special-exhibit gallery.

Paintings, prints, mixed media and drawings of various shapes and sizes hang next to each other in light wood frames, creating visual harmony amidst the diversity of the individual works.

Allan Edmunds’ 200 Yrs captures the struggle for freedom. (Photo by Meghann Taft-Lockard).

With 22 works in total, Approaching Abstraction: African American Art from the Permanent Collection pulls together all of the museum’s abstract art done by African-American artists. It  captures the artistic interpretations of multiculturalism, the past and present ways of African-American life and the struggle to combat systemic racism.

Runs to June 15

The exhibition, which openned in March and runs to June 15, drew the attention of  Yolanda Wisher, a Germantown native and the third poet laureate of Philadelphia, who read from her work in the gallery earlier this spring.

In putting together the exhibit, the musuem hopes to give African-American artists who work in the abstract genre the same recognition afforded to white artists.

“Dancer #5 “by Charles Robert Searles is among the 22 works in the La Salle exhibit. (Photo by Meghan Taft-Lockard).

“The story of abstraction used to be told in heroic terms by white, male art historians,” said Catherine Holochwost, an art history professor at La Salle.

“Not coincidentally, white male painters were cast in starring roles. Widening our understanding of how artists of color, many of them women, were engaging in the very same strategies (of abstract art) is a really great side-effect of the diversity that we now see in universities and museums.”

Recognizing that the special exhibit would receive the most attention at this time of the year, the museum curators chose to run Approaching Abstraction throughout the spring.“We’re very conscious of the fact that spring is our busiest time of the year,” said museum curator Miranda Clark-Binder.

School field trips

With the area’s elementary and secondary schools still in session, the museum’s largest audience, Philadelphia students in kindergarten through grade 12,  visit the museum on field trips. They take part in an educational seminar, learning history about the artists in the exhibit, as well as the abstraction genre.

La Salle students and the local community also frequent the halls of the museum, located in the lower level of Olney Hall on La Salle’s main campus.

Since many of the pieces cannot be hung permanently without jeopardizing their integrity, the temporary exhibit provided an opportunity to bring the pieces out of the shadows of the storage room and showcase them as important examples of abstract art.

Walter Edmonds’ “Untitled (Woman with Flowers)” suggests hope and survival. (Photo by Meghan Taft-Lockard).

One of the most colorful pieces on display, Walter Edmonds’ “Untitled (Woman with Flowers)” captures the brilliance of vivid flowers in contrast to a reserved elderly African-American woman.

With thick brush strokes on the woman’s jacket, the painting appears symbolic of her struggles throughout her life, while the flowers suggest beauty amidst life’s struggles.

The most notable piece in the exhibit is arguably Allan Edmunds’ lithograph, “200 Yrs,” which features the faces of prominent African American figures, including former President Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.

In recognizing 200 years of struggles and achievements, the print balances the nation’s history of slavery with advances made by individuals within the African-American community.

La Salle freshman Diana Kabadi, who works at the museum, said the piece by Edmunds is her favorite because it acts as a form of cultural preservation. “I think preserving African-American aesthetics is so important because we were so underrepresented and marginalized,” she said.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. Starting June 1, the hours will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, although donations are welcome.