Art Exhibition Review Essay
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Myrna Colley-Lee was a collector of art who traveled the world to enhance her collection. She was a pioneer of Black Theater and Costume design and established the SonEdna organization that promotes literary arts. Reflections is a personal story of her discovery of African-American life and community; including 50 works of art including painting, paper, photography and fabric. The works are on tour from 2013 to 2015 (International Arts and Artists, 2013).
One of the more interesting works in this collection was Barefoot Prophet by James Van Der Zee. This is a silver gelatin print from 1929, an older style of photography. Van Der Zee (1886=1983) was an African-American photographer best known from his portraits of New Yorkers. He was active in the Harlem Renaissance, the resurgence of Black artistry during the 1920s-1940s in New York City. He was known for experimenting with double exposures, retouching negatives and the manipulation of Black middle class familieis -- often combining several photos in one image that created a ghostly presence that suggested more than a single photography. He noted. "I wanted to make the camera take what I thought should be there" (McCollum, 2012).
His portrait, Barefoot Prophet, was striking first because of its extremely interesting subject matter and composition. From an objective viewpoint, we see a Black man in formal
dress, contemplating a book. Then we notice the man is barefoot, but the setting is quite elegant -- sconces, ornate wooden furniture, tall elegant curtains, a statue of the Virgin Mary. What is striking, too, is the resemblance that the character in the painting has to another famous African-American, Frederick Figure 1 - Douglas (Left) VanDerZee (Right)
Douglas, during the twilight years of his life (See Figure 1).
I wondered if this was purposeful, so researched the subject of the photograph. The Barefoot Prophet was not staged, but an actual individual from the Harlem Neighborhood of the 1920s. The individual, a man known as the Elder Clayhorn Martin, or the Prophet Martin, was an eccentric street preacher who regularly preached on the streets without shoes and socks. Elder Martin was homeless who refused to wear shoes because God told him to only walk on Holy Ground. He never had a formal Church, but was respected by a number of members of the Harlem Renaissance, who raised money to help him eat and for his funeral. It appears that his main message is that God is within everyone, not just people who go to Church or in Church buildings. He died in 1937 (Jackson, 2011).
It seems that there are two ways to view this picture -- objectively and subjectively. There are any…
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