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The art of living black

Mills College Weekly

The work of 80 local African American artists is on display in the Richmond Arts Center. The seventh annual Bay Area Black artists exhibition, The Art of Living Black 2003 (TAOLB) is displaying one piece from each emerging and established visual artists.

Also on display in TAOLB 2003, the only major showcase of African American artists in northern California, is the work of three juror-selected winners of the Jan-Hart Schuyers Artistic Achievement Award, an award named after one of the exhibit’s founders.

An overwhelming vastness of colors and shapes and the juxtaposition of pastel abstracts placed next to rigid realistic images makes seeing straight almost impossible. The various themes, mediums and voices of the artists experiences vibrate from the walls of the exhibit.

Karin Turner’s “Summer Exit” is an example of the exhibit’s variety of voices and visions. Turner confronts our discomfort with images of brown skin, women larger than size 10, unstraightened hair, and African Americans eating watermelons.

She celebrates these issues in a painting that walks off the walls and gives wet kisses to anyone who steps into the gallery.

In the painting, a “thick” woman in a tight orange dress under thick blue skies and thick white clouds enjoys the last slice of a watermelon lying on a picnic table covered by a red and white checkered cloth. The sight is one to dance and hum with.

One of the most impressive pieces of the exhibit comes from an artist well known on the Mills Campus, though perhaps not for her work with a brush and paint.

English Professor Ajuan Mance makes her second appearance at TAOLB 2003 with her painting, “Colored/Men: Four Friends.” This painting may speak best as a representative of the show.

“I embrace [the African American] tradition of bright, audacious, and unexpected color as a way to move beyond the limitations of what we think about the Black subject, and into a realm of endless possibilities and pleasure,” said Mance.

Even though the colors she paints “Colored/Men” with don’t always match the skin tones of any race, these colors are not unexpected. The bold oranges, reds and yellows testify to Mance’s claim that the dominant characteristic of the African American face is not the color but the expression.

In the painting, she patches her characters’ expressions with jigsaws that accentuate the true asymmetry of human facial features, giving us individuals rather than faces of men posed for a particular role.

In a culture in which roles can be changed and assumed as easily as grabbing a pair of jeans out of the closet, our true identities get lost or even forgotten in the process of creating the next one. Mance’s work draws its power from its affront to that urging pressure to assume different roles.

She paints her characters in a role that is not only rare for African American men, but anyone battered by the constant media display of “American” as a middle-class white or other assimilated form.

Her characters aren’t raising their fist or the roof. They aren’t trifling or tattooed. They aren’t sensitive or strong. The “Four Friends” is painted with the most compassionate brush in a role powerful in its integrity and soft in its sincerity. Mance paints the four friends as men-just men. How honest. How endless the possibilities and the pleasures.

The breadth of styles hanging excitedly from the walls of the show affirm the double meaning of the exhibit’s title. The collection of these 80 artists may even threaten the name of the exhibit.

To read either that there is art in being African American, or that living African American requires art, eliminates half of what is experienced when one walks through the Richmond Art Center’s main gallery.

Collectively each shocking, soothing, rigid, ravenous, powerful, and positive work on display cheers for our wonderfully unique selves within our beautiful and mosaic community.

We take most from this exhibit the impression of the possibilities and pleasures. Perhaps we don’t walk proudly away from the Richmond Art Center moved by the art of living black.

Most likely, instead, that pep in our step out of the gallery originates from a shot of adrenaline that comes with the magical understanding of the not-so-simple art of living. The exhibit will show until Saturday, March 22.