For the new “art year” in New Orleans kicked off during White Linen Night, Arthur Roger Gallery presents an exhibition featuring three generations of African American artists, including the famous Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks born in 1912 and the native artist Bruce Davenport in 1972. The show gathers a large collection of works from Willie Birch and introduces new pieces from Whitfield Lovell. The four artists, through different media and languages, contribute to a conversation about memory and history in their search for roots and identity.
Starting with the black and white photographs from Gordon Parks, nine portraits of the boxing champion known as Muhammad Ali reveal the multiple facets of the athlete’s character, including his vulnerable sides, through subtle manipulation of light, shadows and composition. On the opposite wall, the four colorful large-sized works from Davenport relate to the iconic fighter who we learn, is the artist’s father figure since childhood. With his naive technique, Davenport draws a bird’s eye view of the ring encircled by rows of spectators themselves surrounded by smaller squares filled with side line stories, quotes and artist’s thoughts. The felt pen drawn pieces viewed from afar suggest abstract geometric compositions and become alive as we come closer.
The thirty-four charcoal and acrylic drawings on paper from Willie Birch fill the largest gallery, plunging the visitor into a very New Orleans world. Black, white and all shades of grey, each drawing gets its inspiration from the city: lavish chandeliers next to abandoned sneakers and empty lots. A hose becomes a snake, shoes aligned on the pavement belong to a group of veterans marching in the street, a hat laid on a shawl is the artist’s self-portrait. The simple graphics tell elaborate stories built around the object, life’s witness. Willie Birch brings us on a stroll around the city while he teaches us how to see.
Sixteen of Lowell’s works are found in the adjacent gallery. They include a selection of portraits of anonymous African-Americans borrowed from old photographs. Detailed profiles or full faces are drawn with charcoal on vellum, wood veneer or vintage wallpaper. Meditative, they exude gravitas, an expression usually associated with Roman statues or paintings, to which the artist was exposed during his travels in Europe. The windowless space creates a museum-like atmosphere, quiet and dark. The only bright color is the red from the American flags included in the piece facing the entrance. Featuring a full-length portrait of an African-American, the official portrait is close to another figure drawn on wood, surrounded by bombshell casings. Lovell states “I want to evoke a sense of place, to be able to feel the spirit of the past for a moment, to feel the presence of these people”. Some works may have gone one step further, setting African-Americans in their country’s history.
The exhibition which includes respectively, “Ali”, “The Dapper Bruce Lafitte Introduces: Draw Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”, “Seen and Unseen: Coupling” and “First Impressions”, manages to define common grounds between the four artists and reveals the connections between the themes of their works. Through personal experience, anonymous characters or objects, with different media and style, the four artists are contributing to the African-American history and the carefully staged display results in a show with profound content.
photographs by the author:
“You’re My Thrill”, 2004, Whitfield Lovell
“Say Hello to the Dapper Say Goodbye to Davenport, Jr.”, 2015, Bruce Davenport, Jr.
View of the exhibition