(The Southern African Times) – When a bystander asked Kas Williams which piece of art spoke to her most loudly, Williams led the way through the Pauly Friedman Gallery at Misericordia University and stood before “Streetcar Scene.”
The 1945 lithograph by John Woodrow Wilson depicts a Black man, dressed for work at the Boston Naval Shipyard, and sitting oh-so-straight on a street car, as if he’s determined not to lean into the space of the white woman sitting next to him.
“This reminds me of a beautiful, dark-skinned young man who told me that he hums a Beatles song when he walks past white women, so he won’t appear threatening,” Williams said. “It reminds me of how when I was growing up, my mother said we couldn’t cut up in front of white people. We had to be really well-behaved, and we had to work twice as hard.”
Williams, who is the university’s associate vice president for mission integration and institutional diversity, wasn’t the only person admiring artwork at Misericordia on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Dozens of other people attended the opening reception for an exhibit of African American Art, all on loan from the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of San Antonio, Texas.
The 40 pieces, some of which date back to the early 20th century, and some created much more recently, will remain on display at the Pauly Friedman Gallery through April 10.
Here visitors will find work by Alma Woodsey Thomas, who became Howard University’s first fine arts graduate in 1924; John Thomas Biggers, born in 1924, who trained for a career as a plumber before he turned to art, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, son of a former slave, who moved to Paris in the late 1800s to purse his art career far away from the discrimination he faced in America.
Pieces on display include Ernest Crichlow’s 1940 depiction of “Anyone’s Date,” a woman in a vibrant red dress who might be out for an evening at the famous Cotton Club; Hale Aspacio Woodruff’s “Sunday Promenade,” where a group of people appear to be on their way to church, and Biggers’ 1965 piece called “Morning’s Here, No Dawn,” in which an older man wearing overalls covers his face with workworn hands, as if he’s still tired. Or already tired.
“Every picture tells a story,” said Williams, admitting she finds “Hands Up, Nimbus” especially poignant. That 2020 piece depicts a young Black man with his arms in the air and a halo around his head.
Artist Curlee Raven Holton, who put a streak of his own blood on the lower corner of the subject’s shirt pocket, has noted that “the golden halo represents the honoring of the subject’s value. Before halos were religious symbols, they represented heroism and valor as well as the unique value of each individual. The primary image is done in watercolor with the hands in gray with white space. This segmentation of the image refers to barriers that perpetuate black vs white encounters.”
Another piece Williams found especially noteworthy was “Black Snake Blues” by Alison Saar, which depicts a woman lying on a bed and cupping her breast, with a snake coiled nearby. Some white visitors to the gallery thought it might represent Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but Williams had another thought.
“There were times in history,” she said, “when Black women nursed white children.”
Being forced into such intimate interaction, which might have deprived her own child of nourishment, could account for a particularly haunting feature of the woman’s face.
“Just look at her eyes,” Lillian Caffrey from the Wyoming Valley Art League said, with a nod toward two vacant spaces, graced with neither irises nor pupils.
Admission to the gallery is free. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, or by appointment. Free tours led by Gallery Director Lalaine Little are available on request.