Crossing the Delaware by Jimi Jones, oil on canvas

The insistent art works in Beyond Emancipation at Kennedy Heights Arts Center demand attention. “Look at me,” they seem to cry out. “Look at me now. WHAT DO YOU THINK I’M SAYING?”

The first message, and there are others, is that emancipation was a first step, a needed step, but only the beginning. Nowhere is this more direct than in the room dedicated to works by the late Thom Shaw, centered by his big acrylic painting “America and the Talented Mr. Shaw.” In it the artist is a dummy on a ventriloquist’s knee.

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If that was the role society urged Shaw to play, all who know his work recognize that he refused.  So the message gets more complicated.

Michael Todd’s jam-packed canvases radiate dissonance, their titles sharp and to the point:  “Racial Separation,” “Blaxploitation,” “Colored Woman on the Verge” among them. Todd, who is bi-racial, identifies with his black ancestors more than with his white but perhaps part of his message is that racial purity is ambiguous.

One of the strongest works in the show is the single contribution from Terence Hammonds, an untitled silkscreen of great beauty and power. Red and yellow swirl across the surface, producing almost a pattern on which is imposed the tilted head of a black woman, leaning against her hand, her eyes on something somewhere beyond the frame. Anyone who yearns can identify here.

Jimi Jones, like Todd, uses color almost as a ringing bell. He has said he takes the idea of the pixel “as a visual component and metaphor” in his paintings. While imposing an element from a new age onto a process – oil paint on canvas – centuries old, he also injects new elements into accepted history. “Crossing the Delaware” has the familiar noble figures in boat silhouetted against an American flag, with another noble figure, the first black president, smiling at left and a handful of spoil sports (one of Grant Wood’s close-minded women among them) shown white and pale and small in the vivid painting. In another work Jones recasts conventional stereotypes. “The Real Cowboy” shows a fellow whose skin and clothes and demeanor are not the same as a couple of movie-style mounted gunmen in the background.

The American flag appears again as background for “The Dream,” a sculpture by identical twin brothers Kyle and Kelly Phelps. Their sure work, seen in depth in a show at the Weston Gallery a few years ago, deals not only with the black experience but also with the blue collar life they grew up in. Here, a black janitor sweeps up the discarded posters of a political rally for Barack Obama. Most of these throwaways are under his broom, but one has been stuck into his hip pocket.

A counterpoint to all this color is found in the black and white photographs of Melvin Grier and Jymi Bolden, each a news photographer with a good eye and an almost formal sense of composition. How they carry off composition in the hustle of news photography has to be by both instinct and experience. Each includes a color work or two in this exhibition, but the black and whites are the standouts against the profusion of color from other artists here.

Robert Harris also contributes color-muted works. Using pen and ink or black marker on white paper he draws men whose internal distress is suggested in the titles: “But, I Didn’t Have a Clue,” “There Was a Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Please Don’t Let Them Know That” among them. His lines are spare but telling, producing white space of equal visual importance.

With Thom Shaw line trumps color as well. Aside from the painting “America And The Talented Mr. Shaw,” his works here are ink drawings and an anguished woodcut that may be the piece I can’t forget from this show. “Street Madonna & Child” shows a mother and child filling the lower left side of this large work, the mother’s head thrown back and her mouth open in a cry, while at right, farther away, men with serious guns menace from a car.  It is a deeply unsettling work.

Curator Barbara Gamboa planned this exhibition to explore “African-American culture through contemporary art, [representing] the connection between the past and recent history.” On view through February 25, Beyond Emancipation appears in Black History Month and is also meant to honor the 25th celebration of Juneteenth Cincinnati. The first observance here took place in Kennedy Heights, in 1988, when 1500 people gathered in Daniel Drake Park. Since 1993 Eden Park has been the local site. The festival, now a national holiday, began in Galveston, Texas and recognizes June 19th as the day in 1865 when Texas acknowledged President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued two and a half years before. The final room of the exhibition has wall labels explaining Juneteenth and Cincinnati’s participation in it, along with a dozen photographs of people having a fine time at  celebrations of the festival here.

Accompanying Beyond Emancipation is a small show from artists whose particular physical disability would seem to present problems as difficult as the color of one’s skin, especially in making art. However, students from Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired have been in class, making art, at Kennedy Arts Center. Their exuberant ceramics, bowl-shaped for the most part, are ample in size and sweeping in shape, form perhaps more important than color. Form can be felt, where color must be seen. These pieces appear in the small gallery, once the sun porch, off the front parlor of this expansive house turned arts center. One handsome bowl, however, has slipped out of the sun porch and into the gallery dominated by Grier and Bolden’s black and white photographs. Its title disputes my view of color for these artists, “Pink Then Purple,” but for me the generous proportions and interestingly shaped brim are its strong attractions. The artist is Lauren Allen.

Beyond Emancipation tells us the fight isn’t over, but it also shows how much has been won.

–Jane Durrell

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