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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 9 months ago

19 May 2004 WAKE UP OUR SOULS: A CELEBRATION OF BLACK AMERICAN ARTISTS by Tonya Bolden, Harry N. Abrams Inc., published in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, February 2004, 128 pages, ISBN: 0-8109-4527-4


It is no coincidence that the last piece of visual arts-related YA nonfiction that I recommended was similarly published by Harry N. Abrams:





Abrams bills itself as "the preeminent American publisher of high-quality art and illustrated books." With WAKE UP OUR SOULS, they have once again succeeded in pairing their unsurpassed technical abilities to accurately reproduce artwork onto the pages of a book, with a text that will satisfy a whole range of readers far beyond the narrow confines of art students and art historians.


Indeed, the collection of fascinating stories that unfold within these beautiful pages are at least as important as those stunning reproductions. In her introduction, Tonya Bolden notes that,


"Wake Up Our Souls is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the black American artistic legacy or an analysis of the artists' techniques, but rather a look at the lives and creations of a small number of men and women who are part of a larger story--one that began several hundred years ago when the nation was new."


By foregoing the temptation to be comprehensive, and instead providing "quality time" with each of the artists chosen for the collection, Bolden never falls into the trap of so many other nonfiction biographical surveys which so often read, unfortunately, like a progression of annotated lists.


Instead, this intriguing series of biographies reveal a variety of extraordinarily talented characters with that one thing in common: they succeeded in spite of being born into a race of people whose American history has been successively marked by enslavement, segregation, lynchings and whatever other social and economic injustices could be thrown their way.


In 1876, when Edward Mitchell Bannister's landscape oil painting won a first place medal at the exposition marking the nation's centennial, he became the first black artist in America to receive an important award at a major art exhibition. Unfortunately,


"Bannister's thrill at winning such an important prize must have been soured by the way he was treated when he tried to confirm his win.

" 'I hurried to the committee room to make sure the report was true. A great crowd was there ahead of me, and as I jostled through this many resented my presence, some actually commenting within my hearing, in a most petulant manner asking, "Why is this colored person here?" '

"When Bannister finally reached the inquiry desk, the man behind it ignored him. Then, 'without more than raising his eyes he demanded in a most exasperating tone of voice, "Well, what do you want here anyway? Speak lively." '

" 'I want to inquire concerning fifty-four,' Bannister replied. 'Is it a prize winner?'

" 'What's that to you?' the man snapped."


Around that same time, Henry Ossawa Tanner became the second black artist to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, America's premier art school at the time.


"He had to contend with the silent treatment, racial slurs, and worse." (So much for assuming that art students would aspire to a higher level of behavior.) "One evening, a group of students dragged him, along with his easel, out into the street and staged a 'crucifixion,' tying Tanner to his easel and leaving him there alone to struggle free."


" 'Negress Denied Entry to French Art School,' read a headline in the New York Times in April 1923. The French government was offering scholarships to one hundred American women for a summer of study at a school in Fontainebleau, near Paris."


"Hmmm," you might say. "I thought they were more open-minded than that in Europe." Well, they were. The problem for the amazing sculptor Augusta Savage was that the French unfortunately left it up to a bunch of white American men to pick the scholarship recipients!


"And you may find yourself

Living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself

In another part of the world

And you may find yourself

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house

With a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself


How did I get here?"

--Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"


The artists' work is accompanied by clear and concise explanations that draw you into the work. Here's what Bolden says about one of my favorite pieces in the book:






30 X 48 IN.

"Shotgun houses are commonly found in some areas of the South. One tradition says they are so called because the shot from a shell fired through the front door of the house would pass straight down the hall and out the back door. Here, a community of men and women who have emerged from their houses are gathered on the sidewalk. Those who can bear to look watch their church burn, while others turn away. The children dance on the wet street in the reflected light of the fire."


You'll have to get the book to check them all out, but here are five of my favorite pieces:


SHOTGUN, THIRD WARD #1 by John Biggers, 1966

FORT SCOTT, KANSAS by Gordon Parks, 1950

I BAPTIZE THEE by William H. Johnson, 1940

THE BANJO LESSON by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893

OAK TREES by Edward Mitchell Bannister, 1876


Tonya Bolden completes the story with a glossary of art terms, notes, and suggested reading.


From front cover (Jacob Lawrence's THE LIBRARY) to back cover (Hale Woodruff's AFRO EMBLEMS) WAKE UP OUR SOULS is a delight to read and a sight to behold.


Richie Partington





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