“Cultural Legacy: What’s Going On,” Leedy-Voulkos Art Center

At the galleries, the fall season’s most important exhibition may very well be “Cultural Legacy: What’s Going On,” curated by artist Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

The title of the show derives from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit song “What’s Going On,” inspired by a police brutality incident witnessed by one of Gaye’s colleagues.

Seen within the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, a number of works in the show convey protest.

In Michael Brantley’s oil on canvas painting “I AM,” an African American man holds chains that resemble slave shackles, while above him, a headdress-like element is composed of small images from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike showing men holding signs that read “I am a Man.” Three dates appear among the chain links. Two are fully legible: 1522, the date of a major slave rebellion on the island of Hispaniola (the island made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and 1619, the date that enslaved Africans were first brought to Jamestown.

The third date is illegible except for the first two digits, 20. The work brings to mind the resurgence of slavery in our time, such as sexual slavery resulting from war (as elucidated by recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad). In addition, in one of the most pointed adjacencies in the exhibition, the placement of Michael Toombs’ large work, “Usury,” next to Brantley’s painting suggests the servitude that many face as a result of overwhelming debt.

Although major events in African American history such as the Hispaniola uprising and the arrival of slaves in Jamestown may be familiar to many Americans, Thompson-Ruffin asserts that knowledge of many other aspects of African American history is disappearing.

In some cases, this may be due simply to the passage of time and the aging of older generations.

As one example, Thompson-Ruffin cites her personal history with slavery. Her great-grandmother was the daughter of slaves. She lived a long life, and when Thompson- Ruffin was young she got a chance to know her. In another personal example, she witnessed an act of racial terrorism. When she was traveling in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1971, she was shocked to see the body of a lynching victim hanging from a tree.

Thompson-Ruffin finds that such examples are not a thing of the past and alludes to rollbacks of the Voting Rights Act led by Republicans during the Obama administration.

“We haven’t resolved anything, because the vote can be taken from black people at any time,” she says.

Other works in the exhibition indict the underlying systems that contribute to oppression.

Linda Lighton’s “Hit Me” features a clay sculpture that resembles a toy spinner mounted on a roulette wheel, with arms of alternating guns and gas pump handles, suggesting the intertwined nature of petroleum production, consumption and violence.

Thompson-Ruffin’s inclusion of artists who are not African American, such as Lighton, speaks to the cross-cultural nature of the challenges presently facing our nation.

Lighton, who has been showing in Kansas City since the late 1970s, contends “This is the most racially integrated show of Kansas City-based artists that I’ve ever participated in.”

Caleb Bowman’s dynamic sculpture in the middle of the gallery titled “I See Your Perspective” seems to serve as a linchpin for the show, suggesting the potential of art to act as a vehicle to promote dialogue and healing, and echoes the portion of Gaye’s song with the lyrics “For only love can conquer hate.”

One of the most personal examples of having to overcome instances of hate may be Hugh Merrill’s large print “WhiteOut: A Family of Privilege,” which details current and past members of Merrill’s family who have been actively involved in creating racial disharmony. His distant cousin John Merrill is the current Secretary of State in Alabama and has, in the artist’s words, “helped craft voter ID laws to disenfranchise people of color, immigrants and the poor from their ability to vote.” The artist’s grandfather, Hugh D. Merrill, was the judge in a 1918 trial that resulted in the “legal lynching” of an innocent black soldier, Sergeant Edgar Caldwell. Another attorney in the family, the artist’s Uncle Hugh, defended a KKK terrorist that burned the “Freedom Riders” bus in Anniston, Alabama in 1961.

There are many great works in this show. Standouts include pieces by Sherry Whetstone McCall, Dean Mitchell, Art McSweeney, Laura Nugent, Michael Schonhoff and Harold Smith.

José Faus contributed two large, stunning canvases that use humor to address issues of colonialism and immigration. In “Dreams of Nojpeten,” a muscular figure dressed in indigenous Central American garb rides a large mower in a lawn bounded by a white picket fence. In the background, a Central American-style pyramid rises above a lush green forest. The riding figure’s downcast head and eyes seem to convey wistfulness for the time represented by the pyramids, before the ravages of the Spanish colonial era. The painting also suggests the difficulties faced by new immigrants to the U.S., many of whom labor in low-wage occupations, as well as the plight of current refugees fleeing violence in Guatemala, as Nojpeten was a capital city in the Mayan kingdom.

Excellent contributions by more nationally established artists like Charles Bibbs, Larry “Poncho” Brown, Najee Dorsey and Ed Dwight testify to Ruffin’s reach as a curator. Works in the exhibition by artists previously unfamiliar to this writer abound, such as Joseph T. Newton’s gloriously colorful and conceptually rigorous paintings; Kim Newton’s emotive quilt that evokes a quiet power and persevering strength; Keith Shepherd’s homages to pop art and to black performers and recording artists; and Jason Piggie’s stop-motion video “Mind’s Eye Viewer.”

With “What’s Going on: A Cultural Legacy,” Thompson-Ruffin has raised the bar dramatically for exhibitions of locally based artists that seek to be inclusive and diverse.

“Cultural Legacy: What’s Going On” continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore, through Dec. 1. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday. For more information, 816.474.1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com.

James Martin

James Martin is Public Art Administrator for the City of Kansas City, Missouri. Prior to working for KCMO, he wrote freelance for “KC Studio” and served as public art consultant for the cities of Gladstone, Missouri; Leawood, Merriam, and Olathe, Kansas, and for Overland Park Regional Medical Center. He has held curatorial positions with Truman Medical Centers, Sprint and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and taught art history at UMKC, JCCC, Park University and Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. He holds a B.A. in art history from the University of Kansas and an M.A in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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