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Fifty years ago, the Delaware Art Museum turned down the chance to host a show titled Afro-American Images 1971, developed by Wilmington-based Black arts and humanities group Aesthetic Dynamics, Inc. The show, which went on to premiere at the Wilmington Armory, was inspired by events including the trauma of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the subsequent nine-month occupation by the US National Guard in Wilmington. Now, the Delaware Art Museum teams with original arts cohort Aesthetic Dynamics for American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks, an eloquent remount of the original show, with a modern approach.
Aesthetic Dynamics founder Percy Ricks wanted to promote and celebrate the contributions of African American artists. The Delaware Art Museum’s 1971 rejection of the group’s inaugural show was a sign of the turbulent times, and an extension of segregation in America, which offered few opportunities for Black art exhibits in the professional art world. With acknowledgement of the injustice of overlooking such an important historical exhibition, the museum is now doing an excellent job presenting these works in their entirety, respectfully preserving their authentic, unedited expressions.
The rebooted exhibition includes most of the artists who participated in the 1971 show, many known locally—Humbert Howard, Simmie Knox, Edward Loper Sr., and Edward Loper Jr.—as well as those recognized nationally, including Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Loïs Mailou Jones, Faith Ringgold, Alma Thomas, and Hale Woodruff.
These important works by local and nationally celebrated artists are on loan from several prestigious museum and personal collections including the Smithsonian Institute, Howard University, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The current show was also developed with years of input from community partners in Wilmington.
Honoring Percy Ricks
Who was Percy Ricks? A visionary artist and educator. An activist and underrated philosopher. But some would say his most important role was as a mentor to a generation of Black visual artists and thinkers who have shaped a legacy of Black art in the US and beyond. Born in 1923, Ricks has a rich history in American visual arts; a Washington, DC native who served as a combat artist in World War II and became the first Black art instructor in Wilmington’s public schools. He died in Wilmington in 2008. His impact on the arts world reaches far beyond Delaware—and the Delaware Art Museum now honors his true legacy as a profound artist and community organizer. This exhibition is immediately recognizable as a world-class gem that should not be seen as a “diversity” project, but as an important piece of social justice art history that should be revisited and celebrated.
“As African Americans we must have a reference as well as knowledge of our history and heritage if we are to reshape our future. The study of the past is a prime necessity … History must restore what slavery took away,” reads one of many Ricks quotations featured in the exhibition, presented as prominently and carefully as the art itself.
An essential vision, now and then
There is no single piece that sums up the power of the exhibition, but instead many thought-provoking, eye-bending moments that will touch anyone’s spirit and create a multitude of emotions. This is a major exhibition including paintings, drawings, sculpture, textiles, photographs, and prints, but one piece that personifies Ricks’s quotations is Ernest Crichlow’s 1965 lithograph Waiting. The artist uses high-contrast black-and-white and barbed-wire fences that emphasize the constructs of racism and barriers against a beautiful Black girl’s face, stoic and burdened and waiting for change. Southern Landscape (1963-64), Walter Williams’s work in oil and collage, seems like a beautiful expression of the earth and sunflowers in the South. The artist explains that the sunflowers represent hope and the butterflies symbolize full flight to freedom, but the shacks in the background reaffirm poverty.
Ricks’s vision is as important now as it was in 1971. This is a historical and groundbreaking show that should gain the deserved accolades the second time around from all prestigious art collectors and their institutions.
What, When, Where
Afro-American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks. Through January 21, 2022, at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Delaware. $7-$14; no cost for members and children under 6 years old. (302) 571-9590 or delart.org.
The museum requires all visitors over the age of 18 to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination, and everyone over age 2 must wear a mask inside the museum.
The Delaware Art Museum is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with accessible parking and restrooms, and offers a variety of accessibility programs and services. For more info, visit the museum’s accessibility page.
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