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Published 01/25/2020 | Reading Time 3 min 20 sec
By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder, director, and executive editor
TULSA, Okla. — A few miles from the Greenwood District — once the epicenter for African-American arts, music, and culture west of the Mississippi — tucked in the Osage Hills at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute and Museum of Art and History, the Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African-American Art is now on display from January 24 through July 26, 2020.
Quraysh Ali Lansana, a co-founder of Tri-City Collective and Focus: Black Oklahoma as well as an esteemed author and professor, said that it is the largest display of African-American Art to be on display at the Gilcrease Museum in over 18 years.
In a Saturday panel discussion, that featured Kerry Davis and Dr. Amalia Amaki, Lansana curated an in-depth conversation on how black collectors shape the way that African American Art is appreciated, understood and valued. Lansana said that Kerry and C. Betty Davis are redefining community by sharing their personal, home art collection, which features over 400 pieces of art created by African-American artists from across the U.S.
“It’s a profound redefinition of community, particularly, at this moment when our young people are more attached to their devices than to one another,” Lansana said.
“I never grew up with art,” Kerry Davis said during the panel. He explained that as an African-American child living in the rural south that “we had what we called the Trinity: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Jesus,” portraits on the wall. The sizable crowd in the naturally well-lit room immediately erupted into laughter.
Davis added, “We never had exposure to Art. Sometimes in school, we may see some European things. And that was cool. That was good. But I never seen me in there,” referring to the lack of African and diaspora presence in historic and modern art.
“Some people don’t go to major museums in their city because they may not feel comfortable going there. It’s not just that they don’t see themselves represented in the artwork that is there, they don’t feel welcomed, so they don’t go,” Dr. Amaki explained.
On the eve of the centennial year of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Gilcrease Museum is breaking its near two-decade dry spell and exhibiting art that represents the rich history of the African-American experience.
Lionel Lofton, a resident of Houston, Texas, traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma to see the art he personally and passionately created on display at the Gilcrease Museum. Lofton has been painting and exhibiting for over 40 years.
Lofton said he was inspired to do this painting by Jim Brown, a former NFL player. “Brown was one of my favorite athletes; he was a running back during the ’60s.” Lofton explained how Brown was one of the dominant players during that time, “So I wanted to salute Jim Brown. If you look at this piece closely, you can see rhythm and movement. That’s why I came up with the title ‘Brown Rush'”.
Kevin Earlie Cole, from Atlanta, Georgia, received his undergraduate degree in Art at the University of Arkansas — Pine Bluff and his masters in Art Education at the University of Illinois — Champaign Urbana. Cole said the concept behind his artwork is composed of two ideas: a story that his grandfather told to him and the relationship between sight, sound and color.
“When I graduated from high school, I didn’t want to register to vote. So my grandfather took me to a tree where African-Americans were lynched by their neckties [who were] on their way to vote. So that’s the reason why I use neckties in my work,” Cole explained. He also explained the other themes he frequently uses in his art. “The scarf-shape represents women, and the rod symbolizes [my grandfather’s] cane that he used to draw me the map that pointed to the trees,” where the lynchings took place.
Freddie Styles, also a resident of Atlanta, has been painting his entire life, beginning in his earlier childhood. “I started drawing what I saw around me. After I exhausted my coloring books, it’s the one thing I stuck with all of my life.
When I was in 5th-grade, I was sent to a room to talk to a lady, and she looked at some of my work, and she said you should be an artist. At that time, I didn’t know that a colored-person could be an artist. She told me about Henry O. Tanner, Hale Woodruff, both of whom had ties to Atlanta and Jules Simon.”
Styles said that it was upon the lady in the room planting the seed and him following the works of Tanner, Woodruff, and Simon as well as others that got him started.
“Art is to be seen. And I want us to see it. I want this collection to go in the most underexposed corners of America where kids who would normally not be able to see it would come out to see it. If we could make that happen, I would be so gratified,” Davis, the collector, said.
Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder, executive editor, and director of The Black Wall Street Times, a digital news media company that believes access is the new civil right. He graduated with a general studies degree from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and a political science degree from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and was a member and chapter president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society. Today, he is a blogger for Education Post, based in Chicago, IL, and a board member for the Tulsa World, Tulsa Press Club, and Tulsa’s Table. Other than the Black Wall Street Times, Frank’s work has been featured in Time Magazine, the Tulsa World, Education Post, Citizens Ed, and many other publications. He is also a public school educator at a local community-led charter school and is a member of Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s Education Task Force for Equity and Inclusion. In 2017, Frank became a Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, a 2018 Black Educators Fellow and gave a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa.