Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Banjo Lesson

There has always been a special place for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson” in my personal exploration, understanding and connection to art.  “The Banjo Lesson” is a high point in Art History as well as a pleasurable, visual feast for the connoisseur. Tanner executed this work with his usual mastery of technique, light, color and composition. He chose to provide two light sources, emanating from the left and right of the central figures; the soft light from a window and the gentle glow from a fire place. The composition draws the eyes to the central features of the young boy and the older teacher/grand-parent figure. The work emotes with a purity of heart from a tradition dating back to the baroque period. The sentiments are genuine here and Tanner excels.

This particular work (The Banjo Lesson) and Tanner himself were of personal importance simply because after years of creating and studying art in school and independently it failed to expose me to the works of any African Ancestry Artist. I was being denied something that I should have been able to take for granted; the knowledge of visual artists of African descent. A definite and defiant part of me knew these artists existed but I was in some kind of vacuum that was failing to acknowledge any historical or contemporary example of creation or culture.  I had learned of the works of Winslow Homer (The Gulf Stream) and Norman Rockwell (New Kids in the Neighborhood.) These are two works of note that I still enjoy but I needed to experience the creations of great Black Artists for reference and as a connection of spirit. The early seventies were still a time of exclusion for “artists of color.” Books, magazines and videos failed to produce evidence of any Black aesthetic. Yet; I was destined for that element of my life to be remied.

My room-mate at Ferrum College; Addae Jahi,  would  land a job in what was then called the AV (Audio/Visual) Room that changed what seemed almost futile; my search for an African American identity in art. While looking through the AV archives He found a multi-media production devoted to African Americans in art and culture. The production featured the works of many greats ranging across fields. Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Lois M. Jones were featured as visual artists; I knew nothing of them before. This was a treasure trove to me. It was Tanner’s work that stood head and shoulders above the others from my then point of view. Addae had found something of incalculable value; a thing iconic in nature, my first viewing of “the Banjo lesson.” Tanner was the quintessential African American Artist.  

Since my initial encounter of “The Banjo Lesson” in video I have seen it reproduced in many other forms including: books, posters and digital. I even had the great fortune a few years ago of seeing the original where it resides at Hampton University in my home state of Virginia. I remember climbing the stairway into the gallery; seeing the seminal, distinctive work of Tanner on the opposite wall and then standing before it. I remember within that moment of loosely bridled passion a total rapture, a cosmic blessing, all vanities replete and somehow my existence complete. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Life Doesn't Frighten Me

Shadows on the wall

Noises down the hall

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking Loud

Big ghosts in a cloud

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Mean old Mother Goose

Lions on the loose

They don’t frighten me at all

Dragons breathing flame

On my counterpane

That doesn’t frighten me at all

I go boo

Make them shoo

I make fun

Way they run

I won’t cry

So they fly

I just smile

They go wild

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Tough guys fight

All alone at night

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Panthers in the park

Strangers in the dark

No, they don’t frighten me at all

That new classroom where

Boys all pull my hair

(Kissy little girls

With their hair in curls)

They don’t frighten me at all

Don’t show me frogs and snakes

And listen for my scream,

If I’m afraid at all

It’s only in my dreams.

Ive got a magic charm

That I keep up my sleeve,

I can walk the ocean floor

And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Not at all

Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.   

Jean-Michel Basquiat  and  Maya Angelou