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Before I enter any exhibit, I consider how the artist intends for visitors to interact with their work. Portals + Revelations: Richard J. Watson’s Beyond Realities invites viewers to engage naturalistic and abstract representations of the artist’s experiences and connections with self, family, nature, society, and culture. Each wall is a gallery of images that reflect Watson’s perceptions of the African American relationship with American history, evolution, resilience, and enlightenment.
These are the times
As I enter the exhibit hall, I’m greeted with Richard’s introduction wall and take a few minutes to learn about his history as a Philadelphia native with a robust artistic career. He’s adorned walls with murals around the city. He’s recognized for his pastoral scenes and seminal murals in the Church of the Advocate. Watson is also known for being a collage artist appreciated for incorporating found objects from his environments into his work. Eager to view his collection of portals and revelations, I begin my journey into his work. I slowly traipse through a room with portraits of landscapes that give me nostalgic wonderment. Each piece represents a different time of day as well as different periods in history—a theme that will carry on throughout the exhibit.
In one room is Discovery, a painting of a wood paddle boat in the foreground abandoned in the middle of a dry, green meadow. In the background are two people walking toward the boat, both wearing matching articles of clothing. I fix on this detail as I begin to think about the period: their clothing suggests this could be the 1700s, and I place my ancestors in their tracks. The scene is serene; Watson’s brush strokes lend movement to the tall grass. I feel as though the discovery of the boat is ironic—perhaps this is a vehicle of escape, abandoned in a wide-open field of opportunity, yet there’s nowhere to go.
Liberation and colonization
As I tour this room, an older man guides two young viewers. They take time to analyze each piece the same as I did. They take residence at two found computer screens Watson has turned into canvases for pieces—titled Portal I and Portal II. They discuss how Watson’s work influences their understanding of an artist’s use of various mediums and materials to tell stories that reimagine realities and fantasies through art, connecting Watson's themes to their own historical knowledge and lived experiences.
In another room, Watson’s famed abstract art and use of found objects are on display with diverse pieces that represent both the liberation of African American people and the impacts of the rise of colonial systems. Biography of a Drive By reflects the pain of loss and trauma from gun violence as a symptom of systemic oppression with use of bullet shells, coins, and found images, making a relatable, impactful collage. Beyond the Blues is a vivacious painting that captures the various experiences of African Americans through a collage of emotions, tracing Black joy as it grows from sorrow.
A remarkable journey
Portals + Revelations is a respected vehicle through time inclusive of the realities of systemic trauma as well as the evolution of Black culture through triumphs and tribulations of individual and collective liberation. Through Watson’s work, viewers are transported through a remarkable journey of the evolution of Black identity and culture.
What, When, Where
Portals + Revelations: Richard J. Watson Beyond Realities. Through March 6, 2022, at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street, Philadelphia. $14. (215) 574-0380 or aampmuseum.org.
The museum is strongly enforcing that visitors always wear masks and social distance. There are hand sanitizing stations at the entry to every floor and throughout each exhibit room.
AAMP is fully accessible with the option of ramps and elevators throughout the building.
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