Four decades of African American printmaking focus of new HoMA exhibition 'Forward Together'

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Four decades of African American printmaking focus of new HoMA exhibition 'Forward Together'
Ron Adams (American, 1934 – 2020), Blackburn, 2000 Lithograph. Partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-01).

HONOLULU.- The newly opened exhibition 'Forward Together' at the Honolulu Museum of Art features works that present visitors with a who’s who of African American creatives. A supernaturally powerful, self-reliant matriarch is the focus of Romare Bearden’s “Pilate,” a 1979 print that depicts Pilate Dead from Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon.”

Morrison was a friend of Bearden. Bearden, in turn, was a longtime friend of Robert Blackburn, a lauded printmaker whose Printmaking Workshop, founded in 1947 in New York, was hugely influential to a generation of artists. Blackburn, also the first master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in New York, inspired Robert Steele to connect with another printmaker to build his collection. More than five decades after Steele met Blackburn, the Honolulu Museum of Art received a major gift of prints from Steele’s collection, including Bearden’s “Pilate,” that is bieng featured in “Forward Together: African American Prints from the Jean and Robert Steele Collection,” on view since Jan. 18 through to Sept. 15, 2024.

The exhibition spans four decades and showcases the work of 25 artists who are connected through friendship, mentorship, print workshops, teaching and shared creativity. The exhibition’s 50 prints, all recent gifts to the Museum from Jean and Robert Steele, will be shown in two rotations with the first half on display from Jan. 18-May 12, 2024, and the remaining works on view starting May 16, 2024.

The artists included in the exhibition reflect the commonalities and rich diversity within the African American printmaking community. Additionally, the installation focuses on the importance of the print medium as a tool that can facilitate deeper connections within and between diverse communities. Recurring themes in the exhibition include an interest in improvisation and collage, the influence of Africa and cultures of the African diaspora, and the reimagining and retelling of stories based on historical or literary references.

Artists in the show include Ron Adams, Emma Amos, Faith Ringgold, Barkley L. Hendricks, Curlee Raven Holton, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence and Valerie Maynard. The works represent various printmaking and media techniques along with several stylistic approaches, including figuration, abstraction, dynamic line, expressive color and dynamic tonal interplays of black and white. The exhibition title comes from the name of a 1997 work in the collection by Jacob Lawrence. Using his signature color palette, the artist pays homage to Harriet Tubman and her efforts to shepherd enslaved people from captivity in the South to freedom in the North. Like this historic and metaphorical reference, the exhibition highlights the drive to move communities forward in a spirit of social action and shared responsibility. Likewise, the nature of printmaking involves artists working closely with master printers and technicians and necessitates the passing down of knowledge through successive generations.

Robert Steele purchased his first work in Harlem during 1968 while a graduate student of behavior sciences at Yale. Robert Blackburn encouraged Steele to connect with Lou Stovall—who printed for Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, David C. Driskell and others—and Allan Edmunds at the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia. Steele later acquired a Ron Adams lithograph depicting Blackburn in the Chelsea workshop he opened in 1948. The print, titled “Blackburn,” presents a rich, detailed look at the artist working in a space heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and Social Realism, with nods to Mexican muralists and European and American modernists. “Blackburn” is being featured in the first rotation of “Forward Together.”

Robert Steele is the former director of The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, where he also served as a long-time professor and dean. Jean Steele is a former corporate executive and has served on the board of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. In 2016, the couple relocated to Honolulu (Jean’s family home) and partially gifted a segment of their collection to HoMA in 2022.

“The Steeles have made an incredible contribution to the Honolulu Museum of Art and its community, who will get to see these important and engaging works in person in this show,” said HoMA Director and CEO Halona Norton-Westbrook. “‘Forward Together’ allows HoMA to chronicle an important moment in artmaking from the late-20th and early-21st centuries.”

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