The Ritz Theatre and Museum welcomed patrons on Saturday, February 3 for the opening of Through Our Eyes. 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the annual exhibit that celebrates African-American artists living in Northeast Florida. To produce the show, Museum Administrator Adonnica Toler worked alongside Lydia P. Stewart, the Founder and Curator of Through Our Eyes.
The Ritz is a City owned cultural asset that was established in 1999. It sits on the site of the former Ritz Theatre movie house, which opened its doors in 1929 in Jacksonville’s historic LaVilla neighborhood. During the height of the neighborhood’s activity, starting in the 1920’s and spanning through the 1960’s, LaVilla was known as the “Harlem of the South.” The mission of the Ritz is to “research, record, and preserve the material and artistic culture of African American life in Northeast Florida and the African Diaspora, and present it in an educational or entertaining format, showcasing the many facets that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community.”
2018’s show is titled Journey to South Africa: A Cultural Exchange. The Ritz posted a Call to Artists in early 2017 with a June deadline to submit. From those who submitted their portfolios for consideration, 27 artists were selected to exhibit their work in this year’s show. Works on display range from 2-dimensional paintings, 3-dimensional mixed media installations, live performances, and animated digital displays.
Marsha Hatcher is a veteran artist of the show, having exhibited her work in 20 of the 25 years the show has been produced. Hatcher paints expressionistic portraits that adroitly capture a range of gripping emotions conveyed through the faces of black women and men. Hatcher has three pieces on exhibit, with one being a portrait of American songwriter and musician Nina Simone. In that piece, Hatcher includes a quote from Simone that examines the artist’s role in society. “An Artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Simone used her artistry to serve the Civil Rights Movement, becoming a leading voice by the mid 1960’s. "Mississippi Goddam," "Four Women," and "Young, Gifted and Black," are popular anthems through which the legendary figure expounded upon what it meant to be black in a racially divided America.
Some of the most enthralling work on display belongs to Marcus Williams. An artist who, after viewing his contributions to the 2018 exhibit, can’t be considered anything other than outrageously underrepresented within greater Jacksonville’s arts and cultural sector. Williams work flips the systemic imbalance between race, power, and privilege. He created pieces that encourage those who have historically maintained a position of power and privilege because of the color of their skin to view themselves in the role of the more vulnerable minority. This theme is expressed with haunting beauty in Stranger Fruit that depicts two white men lynched from the branches of a tree while surrounded by a gathering of black adults painted with impassive emotions on their face.
Jovita Harper’s additions to the show utilize vibrant African fabrics and designs. In addition to being an artist, Harper works in the community teaching single mothers the life skill of sewing. She has committed herself to developing her craft as a means to positively influence her community. For Through Our Eyes, Harper, who was one of the artists included in the Jacksonville Public Library’s groundbreaking 2016 exhibit KESHA, created splendidly designed dresses as well as an installation that is sculptural in its nature. Though her dresses are beautiful, it is extremely intriguing to see black artists in Jacksonville creating textile sculptures like Cocoon/Gestation. These works recall the textile-based installations and sculptures of Yinka Shonibare.
One thing that is apparent when walking through the exhibit is the influence one artist, Overstreet Ducasse, has had on other artists within the region. The Hati born artist meticulously employs mixed-media materials, including found and recycled objects, to create layer after layer of metaphoric imagery. His contribution to the 2018 show includes a collaborative installation with cypher Mal Jones. The continued collaboration between the two artists blossomed from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville’s Cultural Export Program, through which Ducasse and Jones were sent to Bristol, England for a two-person exhibition.
The piece is representative of the family tree, with the left side of the installation representing Jones’s family and their African roots and the right side representing Ducasse and his Haitian heritage. At the center of the piece where the two trees intersect are iron adornments, which are representative of the Middle Passage, the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to North America. It was one leg of the triangular trade route that took goods from Europe to Africa, Africans to work as slaves in the Americas and West Indies, and raw materials, produced on plantations back to Europe.
The two pieces on exhibit from Melody Jackson also deserve mentioning. Jackson was diagnosed with Acoustic neuroma, which required radiotherapy targeting her inner ear and brain. As part of that treatment, Jackson was outfitted with a mesh mask that was molded around her face and head and then secured to a table to prevent movement during treatment. Wanting to incorporate the mask into her work, Jackson, who was restricted to home rest, reached out to Ducasse online for advise. Not only did Ducasse respond, but he scheduled to visit Jackson at her home.
Ducasse coached Jackson on her piece, and as a result, pushed the artist and her works, Mask Resistance and Resilient Ressurrection to an entirely new level. Ducasse also enlisted photographer Clinton Eastman to help in the collaboration. Eastman, a figure well known within Jacksonville’s art scene, captured images of Jackson wearing the mask, which were then incorporated into the work.
Included in the exhibit are several other pieces from which lines of influence can be drawn to Overstreet and his comprehensive body of work, including subject matter, creative techniques, and how he composes and installs his mixed-media installations. There is a line between making work that is derivative of someone else’s art and paying homage to a respected artist. Often it is through constructive criticism that an artist comes to terms with what side of the line their work falls.
What’s most striking when touring Through Our Eyes is the fact that there is still tremendous work to be done in terms of diversity, inclusion, and representation within Jacksonville’s arts and cultural sector. When you read through the list of artists participating in the exhibit, how many of these artists names do you recognize and whose work are you familiar with? Why is it that the majority of these black artists are only extended opportunities from the Ritz or during the month of February?
Since the 17th century, African-Americans in the United States have made vital contributions to the arts. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the art created by African Americans began being exhibited in museums. It was major cities in the north, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and New York, that first recognized black artists and the artistic merits of their work. Even in these cities, which were progressive in nature, African Americans were still heavily subjected to discriminatory practices. During this same time period, however, European cities, especially Paris, France, showed an elevated level of appreciation for the artwork of black artists. This prompted some African Americans to travel to Europe, where they had more freedom to express themselves artistically, experiment with materials, and access education related to artistic techniques.
Starting in the 1920s, the United States began experiencing an artistic movement amongst the African-American community, the Harlem Renaissance. Freedoms and ideas that were widespread in Europe finally spread throughout artistic communities in the United States. This influenced a new generation of black artists. James Weldon Johnson, John Rosamond Johnson, and Augusta Savage, all African Americans from Northeast Florida, played important roles during the Harlem Renaissance.
Black artists were still discriminated against, even after the momentum of the Harlem Renaissance. The majority of galleries and museums were not interested in exhibiting the artwork of African Americans. Rather than fight for representation, black artists instead opted to sell directly to the public. Even in modern times, artists of color are grossly underrepresented in galleries and museums. The same can be said about documenting their substantial contributions in art history curriculums and textbooks.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the artwork of African Americans began exhibiting themes and ideals linked to the Civil Rights movement. Through their work, black artists explored the socio-political landscape of the times. This gave birth to the Black Arts movement. The artists within the Black Arts movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience and transformed the way African Americans were portrayed in the arts.
It can be said that we are experiencing a new movement within the arts as a result of the current global political landscape. African Americans are leveraging the arts to amplify their voices and express their concerns while simultaneously sharing with the general population their experiences as members of communities that are often marginalized. Culture always precedes policy and history has shown that the arts can be harnessed as an agent of change.
To every artist reading this, never forget, there is power in your pen, in your brush, in your body, or whatever tools you use to create.