Visual Arts

Printmatters Houston Spices Things Up with The Roux

Last Friday, the Houston Museum of African American Culture turned on the fire.

Familial sentimentality was overheard as guests stirred the pot, reminiscing their way around a circle of lithographs and intaglio paintings.

"It's so fragile. And to put a baby on it is perfect," said a woman to her friend.

"That piece has the same name as my mother," said another to her daughter.

And printmaking artists Rabe'a Ballin, Lovie Olivia, Delita Martin and Ann Johnson provided The Roux.

The Roux is the latest art exhibit to display at HMAAC and shows four different types of printed paintings from the four aforementioned artists. Historically, a "roux" is defined as a thick combination of flour and fat used in gravy. Add spices, meats and vegetables to the mix, and a gumbo is born. Similarly, the museum's atmosphere was ripe with flavor Friday night as art enthusiasts took in the soup of contemporary prints while noshing on a Cajun-inspired spread of gumbo shots, boudin balls and fresh cheeses and fruits.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors' eyes were drawn first to PrintMatters 2011 member Ann "Sole Sister" Johnson's collective of feathers and magnolia and sycamore leaves in the center of the space, with family members printed on them using a process of moisture and heat and decorated with beads and cowrie shells. The result was nature's family album, showcasing mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and brothers. Her scrap "Big Brother" intaglio piece, a baby picture of her older brother pressed onto a white feather, was a breath-catcher.

Directly behind Johnson's natural artwork were wall hangings, also adorned with beaded jewels, detailing the legacy of Emma Jean, Johnson's paternal great grandmother. Johnson never knew Emma Jean, she said, and used the hangings to create a link between her and her unknown ancestor.

It was this family theme that radiated throughout the venue, as all of the artist's offerings focused on works of the genealogical variety.

Adjacent to Johnson's art was a collection of relief prints by Delita Martin, and although Martin was unable to attend the event, her counterparts--and art-- spoke for her.

"Delita is our true printmaker," said Johnson.

Martin's lithographs were the most traditional prints in the room. Her black-and-white renderings of women in various scenes of emotion were framed by bright, geographical patterns. A standout painting was the "House of Adesina (She Opens The Way)" relief of a Black woman accessorized with a voluminous 'fro and dangly gold earrings and punctuated by circles of patterned color on each side of her face.

Moving left, viewers took in Lovie Olivia's seven-woman collection, showing off different female archetypes, such as the "Carrier," the "Healer" and the "Speller," printed onto beige, oval-shaped tapestries.

Olivia's artistic goal was to portray women as members of a village, and in the far corner of her exhibit hung pictures of the known and unknown women in her family, an effort, she said, to capture a matriarchy she never knew, much like Johnson's "Emma Jean" piece. Lovie admitted she was a bit out of her element when it came to printmaking.

"I'm typically a painter," she said. "What I did was experimental and nontraditional."

Rabe'a Ballin's hobby and history of braiding hair and getting her braided was the inspiration for her sketches.

"I want people to remember the way it felt to get [their] hair pulled on by [their] mother," said Ballin.

One of Ballin's pieces also depicted Marie Therez, the first free woman of color.

The only drawback to the exhibit was the lack of color, except in the case of Martin, and a keen observer could easily tell that the artists collaborated on many of the works, a suspicion verified by museum curator Danielle Burns.

"Most of the works were created at the same time," said Burns.

Still, The Roux's nostalgic qualities made art appreciators feel like they were looking through their own family albums, and that is what made the show a success.

The Roux was birthed in the mind of Ann Johnson, who is friends with all of the artists. It was her idea to create a series of contemporary prints reflecting family heritage.

The idea took some convincing, however.

"Exactly how much printmaking do we have to have?" Olivia remembers asking Johnson.

Soon, though, everyone was on board, and the foundations for The Roux started coming together as each artist contributed her variation of print-made art.

"The name of this show is a metaphor," said Burns. "To create a good gumbo, you have to have a roux."

"We just basically stirred the pot," said Johnson.

The Roux will be on exhibition until June 9 at the houston Museum of African American Culture, 4807 Caroline. For more information, visit

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Altamese Osborne
Contact: Altamese Osborne