Harold Smith, “The Story of Us” (2019), 24″ x 36″, acrylic on stretched canvas (from the artist)
With his new TV drama “Bel-Air,” filmmaker and Kansas City native Morgan Cooper offers a serious reimagining of the 90s sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The reboot premiered in February and was met with wide critical acclaim. One major difference between the two shows is that Philly, relegated to the intro in the original, takes center stage in Cooper’s rendition. The show is a visual profile of two poles of coastal Black American life, but Kansas City has remained central to Cooper’s vision. He handpicked local creatives — from painters to jewelers to fashion designers — to breathe aesthetic life into “Bel-Air,” and their work is on display now at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center in an exhibition curated by Jason Piggie. It was developed in collaboration with the African American Artists Collective and JuneteenthKC.
Going in, I had expected to see specific pieces that were featured on the show, but the exhibit is more of a showcase of the artists who had a creative hand in “Bel-Air.” The paintings of Jason Wilcox take up the most space, and rightly so. He was commissioned to make the character Aunt Vivian’s art, which is significant considering her main character arc in the first season is getting back in touch with her creativity. Although the paintings on display at the Watkins Center are not the ones commissioned for the show, they speak to his immense talent and stylistic range. Wilcox brilliantly captures the larger-than-life personas of Black cultural royalty like Beyonce, Jay-Z, Rihanna, and the Smith family with a layered expressionism reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Brightly colored portraits by Anthony High pay homage to jazz icons like Nina Simone and Miles Davis. Harold Smith, an expressionist artist who lists his influences as “jazz and the jazz dynamic in life,” creates a collage of light, pattern, and color in “Untitled.” The canvas is split in half, and two faces painted in vastly different styles look out with a cool malaise. A “Cargo Twill Swing Jacket” by textile designer Whitney Manney evokes the loose shapes and funky colors of early ‘90s fashion, while the asymmetrical pattern grounds it in contemporary streetwear. It’s the kind of piece a vintage connoisseur dreams about finding tucked away in a thrift store, but knows they never will because who would ever give it up? Some of Manney’s designs were used to style “Bel-Air” little sister Ashley Banks.
Also contributing wearable art is Christine Nelson of Ann Mann Designs. Crowns and collars made of copper and gold contribute to “Bel-Air”’s gilded imagery. Clarissa Knighten’s jewelry and delicately constructed copper wire sculptures, adorned with pearls and seashells, manage to feel both experimental and luxurious.
Warren Harvey’s colorful, geometric portraits of Black life are second in number only to Wilcox, but their placement, tucked away in a corner of the first floor, makes it so you would never know they were part of the “So Fresh” exhibit, which occupies the second floor. However, Harvey’s art is gorgeous and thought-provoking all on its own. His more representational work is especially stunning. In an artist statement, he lists his characteristic bright colors as a way to “display the creativity and beauty of The Creator.”
Indeed, creation and divinity pervade his paintings in more ways than one, as he paints scenes of maternity and femininity in “Divine Nourishment” and “The Divine Preparation.” He portrays his subjects in deep-sea blue with mosaics for faces, all unique but with a shared gold dot in the center of the forehead, asking us to ponder the magic of individuality, commonality, and creation. Harvey, Smith, High and Wilcox have had their paintings featured in scenes of “Bel-Air,” along with fashions and jewelry by Manney, Knighten and Nelson.
“So Fresh” continues at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, through July 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, 816.513.0700 or www.brucewatkinscenter.com. To read more about the Kansas City art featured in “Bel-Air,” see Julius Karash’s column in our July/August issue.