In an art world that can often overlook the contributions of minority artists, the High Museum of Art’s announcement in 2004 of an award meant to honor the influence of African-Americans in art history and art scholarship was an important affirmation of the High’s commitment to African-American art.
The first David C. Driskell Prize was awarded in 2005 to honor individual contributions to scholars or artists working in the field of African-American art and art history. The prize is named for Eatonton, Georgia-native and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, David C. Driskell who has made a name for himself as both an artist and an African-American art scholar.
Over the years the Driskell Prize has been given to notable art world figures including Franklin Sirmans, curator of modern and contemporary art at Houston’s Menil Collection, influential artist Willie Cole and most recently, Atlanta curator and art historian Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.
In addition to that annual prize, the High Museum also created an acquisition fund named in Driskell’s honor, dedicated to augmenting its collection with works by African American artists. To mark the 10th anniversary of the Driskell Prize, the High has mounted “A Decade of David C. Driskell” featuring works acquired through the Driskell fund, by notable artists including Martin Puryear, Radcliffe Bailey and Julie Mehretu.
Included in the exhibition are Driskell’s own works, a suite of colorful “Doorway” prints celebrating nature’s verdant glory. Through not a fault of their own, the works may be overshadowed by their neighbor, one of Nick Cave’s wonderfully outsize “Sound Suit” sculptures from 2005. A fantastic cacophony of color, shape and texture, the life-size costume features beadwork, pompoms and afghan-style knitting, woven into an outrageous sculptural whole. The garment suggests a peacock’s fantastic plumage or the ritual garb of some lost tribe dedicated to thrift store glamour. Cave’s work is in keeping with a theme that reoccurs in this show, of alternative identities and African heritage. There is a satisfying dialogue going on in “A Decade of David C. Driskell” between the ancient and the modern, with many of the artists measuring their own work against the history of those of African descent in potent, affirmative gestures of shared identity.
An influential artist who has transformed ordinary objects like irons, bicycles and blow dryers in delightfully strange new ways, Willie Cole’s photograph “Silex Male, Ritual,” references the “primitive” to humorous ends. The artist has created a diptych photo of the front and back of a man dressed in the sort of “tribal” outfit that might be found in an ethnography textbook. But upon closer examination, his armor carefully concealing his nudity and ornamenting his body is made out of metal clothes irons and scorched iron imprints. Equally memorable is Cole’s bird with the graphic look of Native American art crafted from Xeroxed images of blow dryers in “Collage I.” Cole’s are some of the more striking and memorable in the mix, distinguished by their clear-eyed, elegant simplicity. Also notable are Kerry James Marshall’s haunting spins on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” which, like several works in the show, insert black figures into traditional white story lines. Photographer Xaviera Simmons pulls off a similar feat in three photographs telling stories of exploration and westward expansion. For her “Utah Series, Simmons poses against drama-filled landscapes: Western canyons and buttes and epic cornfields, inserting the incongruous presence of a black woman into this mythic Americana. In many of these artists’ works you get a sense of the black voice and body left out of so much storytelling and nation building. It’s all the more reason for a David Driskell and his determination to push black scholars and black art to the fore through this important prize and acquisition fund.
“A Decade of David C. Driskell”
Through June 2014. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.50; $16.50 students and seniors; $12, ages 6-17; free, children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444. www.high.org
Bottom line: A concise, rewarding show, that highlights some unconventional, political and notable works by African-American artists in the High’s collection.