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STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Dianne Smith works on her installation at the Harrison Museum. She deliberately suspended the long, crumpled strands of butcher paper in spaces where art doesn’t normally hang in a museum.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” — Socrates
No responsibility is greater for those of us who have been blessed to live for as long as I have than to do all in our power to open the minds of children to the awe of wonder — and therefore to the imperative of hope.
This region is especially fortunate to have a number of institutions that devote the time and resources of generous people to that very mission: opening children’s minds. None is more important than the Harrison Museum of African American Culture.
Housed on the second floor in Center in the Square, the Harrison Museum now appropriately resides in the heart of this region’s major city. I am gratified by this “integration” of art and culture into the geographical as well as symbolic center of our regional community.
Incorporated in 1985, the Harrison center originally occupied the old Harrison School, which served African-American students through decades of segregation. Its purpose was to help instill an understanding and appreciation for the “black experience” in the region.
The structure was almost demolished in the 1970s during urban renewal, but was saved by the determined efforts of many African-American leaders, as well as assistance from the late U.S. Rep. James Olin.
Much credit, as well, goes to my late friend Horace Fralin, whose firm in those years was involved in creating housing for low-income residents and was able to secure the school building from destruction. In addition, his enduring contributions to the arts locally have been enormous, that commitment continuing under Horace’s brother, Heywood.
I don’t need to recount in detail America’s and Virginia’s painful struggle to throw off the scourge of segregation. Thanks to the vision of those who sought to preserve the heritage of black Americans in this region, and to help black children identify with that heritage, the Harrison Museum opened the way to that awareness.
Yet this evolution of awareness has been gradual. Using art as a window into understanding human history has not always been “enlightened,” but has at times been plagued by cultural and racial prejudice, especially as regards African art.
It is not sufficient to encourage black children to understand their heritage in Virginia. All of us should come to understand that, as archaeologists and anthropologists tell us, the very history of the human race likely originated in Africa.
As recently as 20 years ago, an article published in The Economist magazine in 1995 reported the opening in Britain of the exhibit “Africa ’95.” Even so, the article noted, “It will have to overcome ignorance about the old art of Africa and prejudice against the new.”
Much of that prejudice found its roots in the persistent aftermath of European colonialism of the African continent, especially since the 16th century. The imperial ambitions of the conquerors dismissed complex arrays of tribal cultures and divided the “spoils” according to their own exploitative geographic calculations.
Despite this ignorance born of condescension, other scholars and artists less blinded by racial and cultural bigotry began to awaken to the nuance and sophistication of ancient and even 19th century African art.
The 1995 Economist article quoted German art historian Felix von Luschan, who had acquired some bronze sculptures from Benin (now Nigeria) and wrote in 1905: “These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique. Benvenuto Cellini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. . . . Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement.”
Famed French artist Andrè Derain in 1905 expressed how “stunned” and “speechless” he was after being shown a mask made in Gabon. Derain showed the mask to Picasso and Matisse, both also expressing astonishment at what they viewed as artistic genius.
In fact, Picasso was inspired by other examples of African art to paint in 1907 his masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”
My wife and I have been fortunate over the years to make 14 visits to Africa, and I still marvel at the influences of African cultures that continue to enrich my appreciation for the complex fabric of the human family.
Thanks to the enduring efforts of so many devoted supporters, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture has been able to open a modest window on the richness of our shared heritage.
Yes, much still needs to be done to widen the wonder in all of us, not only to understand our differences but also to embrace our spirit of common purpose. But moving this jewel of a museum across the tracks and into the heart of our community marks a hopeful step forward.
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