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Black History Month, day 2

 

I could do an entire month’s worth of daily posts just on collage by African-American artists. Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, of course, and so many other artists of our own time who are taking collage in fascinating directions.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is new to me, and I love, love, love her work. It’s mostly painting, with Xerox transfers and other collage elements, and frequently makes striking use of negative space. In the piece I Refuse to Be Invisible, invisibility seems to threaten each figure. Faces and hands, flat, recede into the design. The woman in the orange stripes seems less real than her clothes. The face of the woman turned toward us, though, defies being disappeared. She will be seen, and on her own terms.

I need to see this artist’s work in person!

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Black History Month, day 12

Romare Bearden, image by Roy DeCarava, (c) Sherry Turner DeCarava 2012, courtesy The DeCarava Archives.

Yesterday I alluded to the music and art of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the poetry. I first encountered the art of Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden when I took a collage class in high school, and when I set up this blog, his was one of the names on my blogroll of artists. He had an amazing gift for texture and color, as well as the juxtaposition that is built in to collage (his most frequent medium), and used them to tell stories, evoke the sound of music, portray a place or people . . . His pieces are complex, accessible, rich in allusions, and both emotional and philosophical.

In Early Morning, for example: the woman’s arms both fit with the rest of her and set up a contrast that speaks of other places, maybe the places where her thoughts are now. The arms are languid, flat like a Matisse collage; they contrast with her tired face, which is portrayed more realistically and itself has a contrast between the Madonna gaze of the eyes and the determined set of the jaw. Her head scarf, apron, and dress speak of the kitchen, while her arms suggest a more romantic setting where she might be dancing, sleeping, or making love. And still, that right arm is not only part of her, but part of the background–of the wall, in fact.  As if she is there and not there, as one might be at a moment when duty calls one way and longing another and especially here in early morning, when one’s mind is still half in the night’s dreams. All of that from one figure, and a background figure at that. This is why I feel the way August Wilson does about the effect of Romare Bearden’s pieces: “I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”

Only in writing this post did I learn that Bearden’s centennial is being celebrated right now, between September 2011 and September 2012. If you’re near Cincinnati, Tampa, or New York, check out one of the exhibits in honor of this anniversary; looks like others are in the works. Folks in my part of the world, you can see his mural “Berkeley: The City and its People” anytime by popping into the chambers of the Berkeley City Council.

The above is my favorite picture of Bearden. I love the way the photographer, Roy DeCarava  (another terrific African-American artist), made the photo look like a collage too.

I really love collage, and in fact I’m drawn to all sorts of art forms that reassemble scraps of other things: quilts, mosaics, stained glass, and sculptural assemblage. I only took one collage class in high school (I went to an arts high school, the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven–which, BTW, needs a better website), but it has stuck with me as a favorite medium.

However, it’s not easy to get the materials I have in mind here. I don’t have a big pile of things to cut up, and although I could probably get one by soliciting people’s old magazines on the local Yahoogroup, I’d then have to get rid of them again in a few months (no curbside recycling, or even any recycling center in town). I don’t have access to high-quality printers or copy machines. I haven’t even been able to find rubber cement. Plus, unlike when I was doing collage in high school, I’m very aware of copyright issues (tip of the keyboard to the creator of beautiful collages and digital collages, Alicia Buelow, for the link) and I don’t want to steal other people’s work to make my own. And on top of that, as much as I like the physical cut-and-paste of making traditional collage, there are other wonderful collage possibilities there that require darkroom or computer technologies. Here I am with the gift of time in which to explore them. So in addition to using painted papers and detritus (tape unraveled from cassettes, foil candy wrappers), I thought this was a good moment to learn to use an image editing program.

So I’ve downloaded GIMP, a “software libre” product from the Free Software Foundation. (My term. They prefer “free software” to “open source,” but the problem with the term “free software” is it implies the issue is “no cost,” when what they mean is “free as in speech.” The solution? Turn to a language in which there are two words for these two very different meanings of “free.” Spanish would use “gratis” for “free beer,” “libre” for “free speech.” Hence, “software libre,” which has the advantage of sounding like a cocktail.) It works like Adobe Photoshop, as far as I understand Photoshop; the price put Photoshop itself right out of my range. I looked it up when I first had the plan to learn digital collage, but the version I would want was $650, and that’s one of the cheaper ones. I’m not willing to pay that much for something I may or may not use much, and now that I know there are “software libre” alternatives, I’m not willing to pay it even if I end up using it a lot, unless GIMP proves to be inadequate to the task. So, Adobe, you’ve just driven another potential consumer into the arms of non-proprietary software. Proprietary software creators, be warned.

Some digital collages by contemporary artists

GIMP

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