Art exhibition makes a stop in the region, shining a light on African American artists from Detroit

“We all look for what’s like us – whatever culture is like us; whatever gender is like us; that’s what makes us comfortable and gives us validation,” says Andrea Ondish, curator of education for the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University.

The museum recently hosted an exhibition called “Harold Neal and the Detroit African American Artists,” shedding light on a number of artists not only from Michigan’s largest city, but an under-represented movement.

The exhibition, which is on permanent display in the museum’s virtual collection not only features the work of Harold Neal, but Detroit artists Hughie Lee Smith and Oliver LaGrone, Glanton Dowdell, Jon Onye Lockard, Henri Umbaji King, LeRoy Foster, Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, Charles McGee, and Shirley Woodson, and Allie McGhee.

The exhibition was designed not only to raise awareness of the artists, but also to open up discussion about diversity in art.

Ondish says as a vehicle to open dialogue, the exhibition was successful, but it also had other far-reaching effects.

“We need to think about all types of people – diversity, and it could be gender, culture, or ability. No matter what it is, a lot of times our exhibitions are like that. We want people to feel that it’s for them and relates to them.”

The exhibition came out of the research done by Eastern Michigan University Professor Emeritus Julia R. Myers, who spent 10 years interviewing and looking into the lives of not only the artists, but people who knew them. She wanted to write about someone who hadn’t gotten the recognition in the art world she felt he deserved. What she found in researching Neal was an artist whose work represented the times – the riots in Detroit in 1967, labor movements, and involvement with the Black Power movement.

“We need to look to our past to inform our present and form our future,” says Gregory Tom, Program Director for the School of Art and Design at Eastern Michigan University where the exhibition originated. Although the exhibition was tied to Black History Month at SVSU, it is very timely in wider discourse generally.

“Harold Neal was an under-recognized Black artist. And this exhibition was designed to look at some of the under-recognized artists of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. These are incredibly relevant today,” says Tom. “These are issues that continued throughout American history."

Neal and some of his contemporaries were politically involved and militant, and some chose other paths.

“Neal was someone who very much lived his political philosophies,” says Tom. “He captured a particular moment in history – the riots and police brutality.”

Some of the other artists also put their political views on canvas, but others didn’t. “That didn’t mean they didn’t share Neal’s sentiment.”

In a recorded interview, available on the museum website, Neal talks about Black artists and their influences, including H.O. Tanner. Neal says Tanner started out painting the Black experience, but found it wasn’t well received, so he found other ways to get his message across. Tom says that’s what some of Neal’s contemporaries did too – choosing to paint in more abstract styles, or using symbolism in their art.

Allie McGhee and Shirley Woodson, who both came to SVSU, painted in very different styles than Neal. McGhee started out painting in a similar representational style, but turned toward a more abstract form because he was drawn more to the use of shapes and geometry in his depiction of the human experience. Woodson’s style is described as “dream-like” depictions of the Black experience. “Very few of their works look like hers,” Tom says.

Regardless of the content or style, Ondish says the art is relatable, and validates people of every age.

“It was the style that I remember,” she says. The style is reminiscent of the time period, and “we’re learning a lot about and we hear a lot about ‘Oh, this person is like me, and they look like me,’ and they can relate so much to that.”

Ondish says typically experiencing art isn’t like that. When someone looks at an artist’s representation, they can’t relate to it, but “we all look for something that’s like us. It inspires people and makes them feel like they’re part of something, not always having to deal with something that isn’t them.”

Outside of the exhibition, the artists reach is significant, says Tom.

“Just because someone wasn’t heard doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence of their work around us,” he says, adding, “Bringing those voices forward is why art history is so important to modern society. These people weren’t completely anonymous when the were alive. They were around but they weren’t claiming the lion’s share of the credit for bringing about change.”

Ironically, Neal was an under-recognized artist whose work is not as widely circulated as artists like McGhee and Woodson.

“That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have relevance,” says Tom. “It’s challenging to change a system, but bringing attention to inequity is a little bit more of a new thing.”
He says this exhibition is part of an effort to bring awareness to very important issues, and in fact “the general public is now much more aware.”

Woodson and McGhee are still vibrant artists, with exhibitions at the DIA and at Cranbrook, Qlong with all of the other artists, they continue to have influence.

“Just like (Charles) McGee, Neal and many of the Black artists operating in Detroit at the time – Shirley is sharing opportunities and feedback to another generation,” Tom says.

Continuing the discourse of Black arts in the contemporary culture, Woodson is still relevant in the conversation.

 “She’s chosen to mentor another generation,” her reach is not only that she’s still creating art, but she’s giving young artists opportunities to be heard. The diversity of voices, and their reach outside of their work, also lends to the need to recognize Black artists.

“Sometimes the perception of artists is that they’re hermits slaving away in their studios all by themselves,” says Tom. But it’s in the distribution of the work that their voices are heard.

To view the exhibition or learn more, visit the virtual exhibit at Inside the website there are links to images and videos, including the artists panel featuring McGhee and Woodson.

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