Perri Irmer has a saying: “There’s no such thing as Black History Month. Every month is Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood, said she sees black art through a similar lens.
“Black art is world art. It is American art. It is worth our attention. It is worth our investment,” Irmer said Thursday at the launch of “Black Fine Art Month” at the DuSable. As part of the celebration, the museum is featuring an exhibit that recognizes the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, which, Irmer said, is the anniversary of “the first stolen Africans to come to the shores of this nation.”
The longtime public relations executive Patricia Andrews-Keenan is a founder of Pigment International, the arts collective group behind “Black Fine Art Month.” “So many unique things come out of the African American experience in art,” she said. The objective of Pigment International is “to shine a light on the entire black experience in the arts,” she added.
One of the artists highlighted at DuSable this month is the Chicago-based painter Blake Lenoir, who goes by the moniker “B.Len.” Lenoir grew up in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, and said that his work in the exhibit is commentary on the way bad eating habits have affected his family and members of his community. “I wanna stop the years of heart disease, the diabetes that are plaguing our communities so that we can live longer.”
His “Saline Synapses” addresses generational health in the black community. On one side of the painting, a black man sits stoically, hand on knee. He is the patriarch of the family, and Lenoir said he has just introduced healthy eating habits to his family. The other side is more abstract: It shows what appears to be a disfigured woman, standing over a pig’s head and next to a salt shaker. “This side portrays what their insides look like based on the way they’ve eaten,” Lenoir said. A barrel of apples, serving as a small table, stands between the man and the disfigured woman. “The irony in that is that they would even make a barrel of apples furniture before they would even make that a primary ingredient,” Lenoir explained.
Two works by Lesley Martinez Etherly are also based on family history. “Fade In, Fade Out: My Ancestors’ Ghost Stories From the Cloth” is oil on paper, a swirl of yellow splatters on shades of blue. Martinez Etherly paired it with another work in the exhibit called “Requiem of a Pipe Dream.”
“Both pieces are conversations about legacy and the passing of knowledge through the generations, through our DNA,” the artist said. Martinez Etherly said her Mexican and African ancestry is a common thread in all her work. “I do most of my work on paper…and that’s really important because there’s something about trees and something about [being] rooted,” she added.
For Martinez Etherly, participating in “Black Fine Art Month” is about gaining exposure to a wider audience and creating space for black artists to exhibit their work together. “We’ve been kept out intentionally through the system of racism,” she said.
Martinez Etherly said she and other artists participating in the exhibit are making a statement: “It’s really about putting a stake in the ground and saying, ‘Our work is just as applauded, valuable, beautiful,’ ” she added.
Martinez Etherly also echoed Irmer’s sentiment about how black history should not be relegated to a special month and added that mainstream fine arts institutions have excluded black artists. And, until that changes, she said, programming such as “Black Fine Art Month” as an intentional way of showcasing the abundant talent, is needed.
“Black Fine Art Month” runs through October 31 at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.