Rodney Bennett became a better artist after spending last summer at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts. Cleaning and restoring masterpieces destined for a major exhibition fueled the art major's passion.
"Getting a chance to really analyze the technique and the brush strokes and those types of things, it was really a blessing to me," says Bennett. "When I got back, I was all fire on the inside and I was ready to do the work."
As an artist and student at North Carolina Central University, one of this country's 106 historically black colleges and universities, Bennett is an inheritor of a proud but largely unknown tradition..
"Those schools are known for their law schools, known for the dental schools, known for their medical schools, their communications schools," says Kinshasha Holman Conwill. "But what will last, I must say beyond everything, is this art."
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, helped organize a complex new exhibit called To Conserve a Legacy. It showcases carefully restored masterpieces chosen from the collections of six historically black colleges and universities: Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, Howard University, North Carolina Central University, and Tuskegee University.
Referring to artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Edmonia Lewis, Charles White, and Sam Gilliam, Conwill says, "One of the most important legacies of these colleges is that some of the most important African-American artists both trained and worked there."
It's artists like these whose works make up To Conserve a Legacy, which will travel to all six colleges and seven cities over the next two years.
The show's co-curator, Richard Powell says that from the Civil War forward, these colleges were often the only institutions that valued African-American art. "These institutions patronized African American artists like William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence at a time when these artists could not be seen and exhibited and supported by mainstream institutions," says Powell.
So for the exhibit's organizers, the title To Conserve a Legacy has multiple meanings.
"It means literally to conserve a number of objects of art. We've conserved about 1,400 works of art in this project," says Kinshasha Holman Conwill. "It also means to preserve in a more etaphorical sense, to preserve for the future, for future generations, the legacy of these enormously rich collections of largely African-American art."
Conwill continues, "For a good part of the period of this exhibition, legally, socially, politically, artistically, black people and black artists were not permitted or surely were not encouraged to take certain attitudes and to take such prerogatives. What's so wonderful about many of the artists in the show...is that they didn't let that be a barrier."
Richard Powell agrees, "The prevailing image of African Americans before slavery, during slavery, and even after slavery is an image of banjo-playing, of happy-go-lucky, outrageously distorted bodies. Given the status of black people in the United States, this kind of desire to create an image of order, of normalcy, of sitting down at a meal, saying one's prayers before a meal or standing in front of your home is a radical, provocative statement the artist strove to kind of create and visualize.
Throughout their histories, black colleges and universities have shared a mission: training the head, the hand, and the heart. Today, though, curators of the schools' museums complain they're having an increasingly difficult time fulfilling their mission because of a lack of money needed to maintain their collections.
Powell says that none of the historically black colleges and universities have art conservation laboratories. Our work deserves the same kind of care and treatment as do works anywhere else in the country," he says.
As Powell sees it, "This is really about conserving not just a physical legacy but a cultural legacy, a psychological legacy, a mental legacy of perseverance, of creativity."
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