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MFA honors African American History Month
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Photo courtesy MFA
Hasty B, a lithograph on paper created in 1970 by Charles White (American, 1918-1979) is a gift from Jay and Howard Mills.
ST. PETERSBURG - The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg celebrates the enormous contributions of African Americans throughout the year. During February, the Museum is spotlighting important artworks by and about African Americans, a lecture on the Freedom Riders by the noted historian Dr. Ray Arsenault, and a film and talk about the great African American actor, singer, activist, and intellectual Paul Robeson.

A self-guided tour is available at the Welcome Desk, with red markers placed on object labels throughout the Museum. This would be an ideal family activity - a walk through the history of art and America.

Paul Robeson is the subject of one of the most impressive portraits in the collection. Randall Davey’s painting (about 1920-1925) conveys the charisma of the handsome young actor who at that time was earning accolades on the New York stage. This portrait was once in the collection of conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, himself a strong advocate for civil rights.

A poetic, fluid mixed-media work (1987) by the noted African American artist Raymond Saunders is premiering during February. Born in 1934, Saunders has demonstrated mastery of a wide range of media, as in the MFA’s new untitled work. He combines a depiction of a small, delicate iris with a bold, black calligraphic form, creating tension between representation and abstraction.

Saunders is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, among many others. He has won awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Ford Foundation, and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work was selected for the 1972 Whitney Biennial. His much discussed 1967 pamphlet, Black is a Color, argued that art should transcend race.

The earliest work on the self-guided tour is Edward Mitchell Bannister’s The Dreamer (about 1895), a rare, beautiful portrait of a young boy. Bannister was one of the first African Americans to be recognized by the larger art world. Amir Nour’s powerful Horned Gate (1974) is a superlative example of sculpture on the tour. The artist was born in the Sudan and educated there and in America. For most of his life, he has worked and taught in Chicago. His artwork brings together African architecture and ritual objects with Modernism.

Imaginative works by Bill Traylor, Clementine Hunter, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Lonnie Holley, and Missionary Mary Proctor from Tallahassee are also part of the tour. Bill Traylor’s Owl (1854-1949) is one of the Museum’s prized artworks. Born into slavery on an Alabama plantation, Traylor survived - barely - as a sharecropper after Emancipation. He did not begin creating art until 85, when he was sleeping on a cot in a Montgomery funeral parlor and creating art on the street. The MFA is fortunate to have one of his birds, which he presents as highly individualistic portraits, revealing his many years spent close to nature.

Young Montgomery artist Charles Shannon recognized Traylor’s talent, provided him with art supplies, and began collecting and championing his work. Roberta Smith, the distinguished art critic for the New York Times, wrote in 2013 that “he produced hundreds of drawings and paintings that rank among the greatest works of the 20th century. Traylor was a natural stylist and born storyteller who pushed images of life around him toward abstraction with no loss of vivacity.” His work is now part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the High Museum of Art, and the American Folk Art Museum.

Four works from the special exhibition Recent Acquisitions: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs are also highlighted. They include photographs of a glamorous Eartha Kitt by George R. Booth, Roots author Alex Haley by Jason Hailey, and a handsome young man by the gifted New Orleans photographer George Dureau, known for his portraits of African American men. Charles White’s dramatic Hasty B (1970) was inspired by Civil War-era posters of runaway slaves. White’s tribute to the strength of African American women is timeless. This moving lithograph was donated to the collection by President of the Board Howard and Jay Mills.

Educational programs

• Professor Ray Arsenault will speak on the Freedom Riders, Sunday, Feb. 16, 3 p.m. The lecture is free with MFA admission. A book signing will follow. Arsenault’s books Freedom Riders and The Sound of Freedom, about the events surrounding Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, are available in the Museum Store.

Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is one of the country’s most respected scholars on the South. The documentary based on his acclaimed book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice won three Emmys and a George Foster Peabody Award. Among his other books are The Wild Ass of the Ozarks: Jeff Davis and the Social Bases of Southern Politics and St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950. He co-edited with Roy Peter Clark The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.

Previous to joining USF St. Petersburg in 1980, Arsenault taught at the University of Minnesota and Brandeis University, where he received his PhD. He holds his BA from Princeton University. He has lectured across the country and around the world and has served as a consultant to numerous museums, including the National Civil Rights Museum and the Rosa Parks Museum. He received the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award in 2003.

• Paul Robeson—Here I Stand, American Masters Film, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2:30 p.m., is free with MFA admission.

Narrated by Ossie Davis, this film looks at the broad sweep of Robeson’s life, including the controversies surrounding his activism. It contains footage of Robeson performing and speaking and interviews with people who knew him, including his son.

His accomplishments began early. Born in 1898, he was one of only three African Americans admitted to Rutgers University at the time. He was a star athlete and graduated as the valedictorian of his class. A football all-American, he played professionally for several years, while graduating from Columbia University Law School.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, he was one of the best known African Americans in the country. His solo concerts and Broadway performances were legendary. Ol’ Man River became one of his signature songs, and his Othello was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history. He was one of the first African Americans to secure success in the white theater. He spoke 15 languages, helping him earn an international following. His support of civil rights, however, drew the opposition of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. His career was stifled, but history has redeemed him. This documentary tells the backstory behind the Museum’s compelling portrait.

About the Museum of Fine arts

The MFA at 255 Beach Drive N.E. in St. Petersburg has a world class collection, with works by Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Morisot, Cézanne, Rodin, O’Keeffe, and many others. Also displayed are ancient Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Asian, African, pre-Columbian, and Native American art. The photography collection is one of the largest and finest in the Southeast. The galleries, The Junior League Great Hall, and the Marly Room in the original building were recently renovated, completely transforming the experience of the art on view.

The Museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, until 8 p.m. on Thursday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is only “5 after 5” on Thursday. Regular admission is $17 for adults, $15 for those 65 and older, and $10 for students seven and older, including college students with current I.D. Children under 7 and Museum members are admitted free. Groups of 10 or more adults pay only $12 per person and children $4 each with prior reservations.

For more information, please call 727.896.2667 or visit
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