"Black art is anything it wants to be."
Until speaking with Oklahoma City-based artist Nathan Lee, I didn't realize black art was supposed to be anything specific. But, according to Lee, a mixed media artist who curated "Transcend: The New Face of African American Art in Oklahoma," which opens at Living Arts of Tulsa this Friday, black art has been pigeon-holed by the stereotypes associated with it -- that it must be realistic, that it must include images of African Americans, that it must be tribal in nature.
The exhibit, which is a follow-up to two successful exhibits shown at the Individual Artists of Oklahoma Gallery in Oklahoma City -- Defying and Defying and SKIN 2007 -- is meant to increase the amount of diversity displayed in the local arts community and to dispel myths about black art and artists.
"Any form of artist expression influenced by an individual's experience makes it black art," said Lee. "My art has more in common with nature than with socioeconomic, figurative imagery. Any tribal imagery is highly coincidental."
The other artists showing work in the exhibit -- Robert Skip Hill, Suzanne Thomas, Rory Littleton, Brenna King, Marjorie Bontemps and Cheri Ledbetter -- were chosen for their contemporary artistic vision, and the exhibit includes photography, painting, film, installation and sculpture.
While some of the work offers some social commentary, touching on issues of race and racism, most of it simply represents the diverse scope of work being created by black artists.
According to releases, "Robert Skip Hill constructs collaged paintings (that) incorporate all of the different cultures (that) have influenced him as a human being. A professor at Rose State College, Suzanne Thomas tackles the subject of female strength and spirituality in her freestanding silhouette mixed media pieces. Photographer Rory Littleton explores human sexuality with his stark images of intertwined bodies and haunting visuals."
The exhibit is also meant to close a gap between black artists and the mainstream arts community.
It's meant to answer the question, "Where are all the black artists in Oklahoma?"
"I think what's happened is there have been a lot of assumptions and a lack of communication within the black community," Lee said. "There's a perception that most galleries are not open to showing work by African Americans. That's far from the truth."
Lee also cited a need for a resource center for African American artists that would inform them about how and where to publicly display their art. His organization, Inclusion in Art, aims to do that.
Lee planned "Transcend" to run during February because it is Black History Month. Opening Feb. 5 in Oklahoma City is "Harlem Renaissance," an exhibit of African American art of the 1920s and '30s, at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Lee said "Transcend" was not planned to coincide with this exhibit, but their simultaneous occurrence worked out nicely.
"'Harlem Renaissance' is an exhibit of black artists of the past. This ('Transcend') is an exhibit of the contemporary contributions of black artists," Lee said.
He said the two exhibits' occurrences don't necessarily indicate that black art is suddenly en vogue.
Rather, he said, "I think it's an unexplored part of the arts. It's a natural progression of the arts to explore. By exploring, you're going to find new artists, and they happen to be black."
In April, Lee and a team of producers will release "Transcend: Five Black Artists by Five Black Artists," a documentary filmed during the making of the exhibit. In it, five of the artists of "Transcend" -- Lee, Hill, Thomas, Littleton and King -- offer insight into themselves as humans and as artists. They discuss candidly their political beliefs, religious and social backgrounds and other aspects of their lives.
Lee expects to show the film privately in Tulsa and Oklahoma City before submitting it to various film festivals.
"We don't want to make this a movement that only happens in February," Lee said. "We want to continue to have a presence."
"Transcend" opens at Living ArtSpace, 308 S. Kenosha, Friday, Feb. 6 with an artists' reception at 7pm. The exhibit will hang through Feb. 19 and is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Thursday, from 5 to 8pm and Saturday from 1 to 4pm. More at livingarts.org.
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