Miguel Covarrubias’ African Diaspora Art on display at CAAM

imageFor people that cannot afford to travel to another country anytime soon, visiting “The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias Driven By Color, Shaped By Culture'” exhibit at the California African American Museum (CAAM) is the next best thing. With five sections divided by geographic region from the Caribbean to Mexico, the retrospective has an international feel and hums with vibrancy from each culture.

The African diaspora is defined as the movement of Africans and their descendants throughout the world. This exhibit strives to highlight the links and commonalities of African descent around the world through the artist’s work, although some geographic regions are better represented than others.

The Harlem Renaissance gallery has the most layers with jazz music wafting from a speaker hung above, and the breadth of the portraits there are the most fascinating. With titles like “Harlem Dandy,” Harlem Beauty” and “Harlem Matron,” the portraits could easily be dismissed as caricatures of African Americans. But Covarrubias demonstrates a curiosity that goes beyond the surface of these characters, hinting at their personalities and stories.

imageCovarrubias’ line drawings are economical yet effective in expressing a certain swagger or attitude with just a few strokes. A woman in a flapper hat rests her hand on her hip with a jaded stare emanating a casual nonchalance. In another work, a young man has his hat tilted over his eyes conveying a cool, laidback demeanor. In works such as “The Lindy Hop” and “Percussion,” the artist captures dance, movement and music with a sense of raw immediacy.

Covarrubias gained recognition for having his illustrations and drawings featured on the cover of magazines such as Life, Vanity Fair and Vogue. He was also known as a theater set and costume designer, and worked on Josephine Baker’s “La Revue Negre.”

He also created a series of illustrations for a limited edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Mules and Men.” Displaying the physical copies of the magazine and books provides context for the work and lets the viewer experience his work in the way that most people did – through mass media and print publications.

The Mexico and Caribbean galleries did not feel as full and rich as the other galleries, with the Caribbean works echoing the fascination with rhythm and movement in his depictions of the Rumba dance. In the Africa display, Covarrubias explores the marriage of dance and ritual along with traditional African costumes rich in detail.

imageThe last gallery for the Pageant of the Pacific finishes the show strong, with a large mural of the Pacific and its different islands and peoples on a great expanse of wall. Surrounding the large map are six smaller murals each depicting different characteristics of the Pacific. Covarrubias style is more cartoonish and stylized but matches the humorous and playful tone of the symbols and pictures on the maps. For example, a drawing of a blonde bikini clad starlet symbolizes the industry in Southern California on the “Economies” map. The other maps illustrate flora and fauna, peoples, art forms, native means of transportation and native dwellings of the Pacific.

African Diaspora” is exactly what an exhibit about migration and cultural exchange should be – experiencing new cultures, interesting people and exploring the unfamiliar or even the familiar but with a fresh perspective.

The exhibit, which took three years to complete and includes several pieces that haven’t been seen in the U.S., is currently on view at the the California African American Museum until February 26, 2012.

You can read more about the exhibit and the artist here.

New exhibit opens at California African American Museum

“Places of Validation, Art and Progression” opened at the California African American Museum last Thursday as part of Pacific Standard Time , the museum-wide collaboration highlighting the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. The exhibit displays art by African-American artists in Los Angeles from the 1940s to the 1980s.

A video of interviews with the artists plays at the entrance of the gallery and sets the tone for the exhibit.

“It’s our art. It’s not anybody else’s art,” says painter Samella Lewis. “We have to validate ourselves if it’s going to be authentic. White folks tend to only validate in terms of their vision.”

The artists in “Places of Validation” define and express themselves in a myriad of eclectic styles and media. Over 65 artworks are displayed, including bronze sculptures, portraits, conceptual art, assemblages and abstract paintings. Even posters, opening invitations, photographs and letters have a place in this revealing portrayal of the Los Angeles art scene among this small but prolific community.

imageSome of the most compelling pieces were by David Hammons, a multimedia artist that went on to win the MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”) in 1991.

His featured art is from the 1940s to the 1970s and is characterized by black pigment body prints, reminiscent of Yves Klein’s blue body paintings. But Hammons’ choice of two-dimensional surfaces communicates a provocative message about race and opportunity, or lack thereof. In “The Door (Admissions Office),” the black imprint of a face, hands and torso pressed up against the glass references the lack of access to higher education in the black community. A smaller, more abstract body print lays on top of a page of job classifieds in “Chronically Unemployed,” conveying a similar message of inequality.

Another artist that stands out is Betye Saar, an artist known for her assemblages, three-dimensional artworks using found objects. “Nine Mojo Secrets” has a mystical quality with symbols from different sources and cultures – a star of David, a lion for the zodiac sign Leo and a National Geographic photograph of an African ceremony. The layers of this engaging work will conjure up different associations and stories for each viewer.

“Places of Validation” undertook the difficult task of representing African-American artists in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1980. The breadth and variety of works shown illustrate that there is no stereotypical black artist. The eclectic nature of the exhibit can be hard to sift through, and the design doesn’t necessarily group works into easily identifiable themes. But I suggest finding the works that speak to you, then stepping back to look at the whole of the exhibit. “Places of Validation” in its entirety provides a greater understanding of the history, progression and significance of African-American artists.