16th Annual African American Artists Exhibit Welcomes Black History Month

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Tony McMillian's plaster of Paris and acrylic mixed-media piece sticks out like a sore fist, which isn't strange, since that's exactly what it is. In the middle of the Community Artists' Collective's opening reception for the 16th Annual African American Artists exhibit on Friday, February 3, the clenched brown hand holds a diploma, while around its wrist, an unlocked handcuff sends a message of freedom in the artwork entitled "Through It All, I Made It." It catches one off guard with its three-dimensional immediacy. Beside it, buoys of varying sizes make up Jamil Higley's "7 Legged Bobber," a maritime assemblage piece that looks like an oyster, if one uses one's imagination.

The other pieces in the exhibit are quite tame in comparison, yet just as enthralling. "Thank You, Comrade Johnson," another mixed-media piece, this time by Charles Washington, depicts an enlarged musical score and a headless pianist tinkling the black-and-whites in a slightly less 3-D work.

In the Collective's front hallway, Toyin Folurunso's "Sango Festival" silver hieroglyphics caused us and the woman beside us to gasp openly, as did the "Old Sambo" oil painting by Dedrick James, which depicts the controversial black stereotype, mouth agape, smiling.

The effect of such powerful pieces -- and artists, who wore nametags to identify themselves that night -- in the small space was staggering. But, it's what one would expect from the annual exhibition that heralds the beginning of Black History Month.

Although last Friday served as the yearly exhibit's official opening, the artists' pieces went up at Heritage Plaza on February 1.

"The whole intention of this [exhibit] was to offer artists an opportunity who don't have one," said Margaret Mims, associate education director at the Museum of Fine Arts and interim coordinator of the 16th Annual African American Artists Exhibit. Aside from that, there were no strict requirements for entrance into the month-long showing, save for being 18 and older, new to the art scene and able to provide visual, visceral subject matter unique to the African Diaspora experience.

Donald Walker's "Memphis in May" could be considered an example of that experience, not only because of the accurate detail in which he redraws photographs onto a canvas, but for the stories behind his paintings.

"He was in a moment of privacy. I was invading his space," said Walker of a homeless man whose likeness he snapped with his camera after walking from a barbeque festival in the aforementioned Southern city. He added that he found art in the irony of his carefree, rib-filled afternoon colliding with the man's destitution, and that was why he had to take the picture.

Vonetta Berry's nature-inspired pieces, of which there are two in the Collective and two more hanging at the Heritage Gallery, tell a story as well. The artist used a live subject -- a dancer -- and body-painted her into nature-inspired colors. "The whole thing is about nature and how we reconnect and become one [with it]," said Berry, who painted the unnamed woman as part of a "natural" series.

"We hope the community will support these artists," said Mims.

Both sets of art will be displayed as part of a two-venue exhibit until its closing March 2, when a trio of judges will choose a trio of winners from the 40 artists displayed.

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