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Inner City Art Exhibition Tells Wide Range of Stories

September 1, 2011 10 comments

Here’s another art story about some African-American artists in Omaha. I did the piece a year ago or so for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in conjunction with an exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Some talented folks had work featured in the show and due to space considerations I chose four to focus on. One of these, Gerard Pefung, is increasingly making a name for himself.
Inner City Art Exhibition Tells Wide Range of Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Loves Jazz & Arts Center’s 4th Annual African-American Art exhibition, Telling Our Stories, displays work by some two dozen artists.

The stories of four of the featured Omaha artists follow.

Art saw Yolanda Williams, aka Ms. Yo, through an abusive childhood and early adulthood. Today, this accomplished single mom studying for her master’s in leadership still uses art as “therapy.”

Of her intuitive, self-reflexive approach, she said, “I get consumed with the emotion in the piece of work. When I’m painting I’m talking through my problems, I’m talking through my past. Every paint stroke for me is, OK, this happened, how do I deal with this?’I want every single thing to be based on what I’m going through. When I look at my artwork from when I first started to now I can chart where I was in my life.”

With “Enojado” (Spanish for angry) she flung paint on canvas to release the primal rage she endured with the death of her father and a bad breakup. “Serene” pictures a poised woman standing her ground, sure of herself. It represents self-affirmation. Said Williams, “I love who I am — as an artist, as a parent, as a professional, as a community leader.” “Ra” is her meditation on life, mood, energy, faith and her affinity for the warm orange glow of sun and spirit.

Williams mentors school kids through her North Omaha Youth Art and Culture Program. She also writes and performs music.

Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru, aka G. D’Ebony, infuses threads from her life — family, multiculturalism, social connectivity — in her work, which incorporates found objects.

“Tribute to Lila” is an acrylic portrait executed on an old projector screen she salvaged. The subject is her grandma Lila Gaines, “a pillar” for several generations of South Chicago family and community. Working from an old black and white image, Liwaru’s choice of gray, black and white for the skin palette and regal purple for the backdrop imbues the work with sweet nostalgia.

The mixed media “Human Frailty and Salvation: The Wheat Perspective” ruminates on the fragility, interconnectedness and renewability of sustainable resources, human and otherwise. “The Thaw” is a watercolor/mixed media ode to the rite of spring, as the frozen winter gives way to the free flow of life again. “I Am, I Was, I Shall Be” poignantly renders the dimensions of a young girl on the path to maturity.

Liwaru is an Omaha Public Schools art teacher. She and husband Sharif Liwaru are African Culture Connection board members.

 

 

Gerard Pefung, from touristinmyhometown.blogspot.com, ©photo by Abby Jones

 

 

The dreamlike imagery of 20-something Cameroon native Gerard Tchofor Pefung  variously pays homage to the tribal culture of his homeland and to the urban environs of his adopted country. Vibrant color schemes, kinetic shapes and familiar rituals celebrate life. In “Farm Watchman” a villager’s thoughts commingle with the flame and smoke of a fire. In “Music Festival,” a saxophonist holds sway over a jiving crowd. In each, a conjuring and communion occurs. There’s a deep spiritual fervor and electric immediacy in the work.

Though often starting from a sketch, he said “when I go to put it on the canvas I just let the canvas be itself until the work is complete. I’m not in control of what it’s going to be. Sometimes I’m guided by personal life experience, or by music, or just by the aura that surrounds me.” He works in acrylic and mixed media but mostly spray paints. Pefung, who has a Hot Shops studio, does diversion work with kids to channel them from destructive graffiti to positive modes of expression. Part of the proceeds from sales of his art go to his foundation that supports young people in West Africa.

DeJuan Cribbs, whose day job is at Metropolitan Area Transit, produces “digital paintings” entirely on his home computer, working from found images or from memory. Trained in fine art and graphic design, he melds traditional and nontraditional styles. Many of his images, such as “Native Omaha Legends,” salute a gallery of hometown heroes, including Malcolm X, Ernie Chambers and Mildred Brown. “Native Omaha Days” is a shout out to the biennial heritage event and the family reunions it spawns.

Some of his graphic design prints are abstract but most are figurative, including straight up portraits, caricatures, anime-like imagery, poster art-inspired work and more fine art-like studies. When he uses color it pops with an intensity and richness that comes from deft layering. His non-color work has an engaging older aesthetic to it.

Besides loving black culture, Cribbs said he wants his celebrations of high achieving blacks to show youngbloods the possibilities for success. He hopes to produce a coloring book of black Omaha legends and a digital graphic novel set in urban Omaha.

Other works of note in the show, which continues through May 22, include: Wanda Ewing’s whimsical “Black Catalogue” embrace of ebony women; Sebron Kendrick’s funkadylic religious inconography; Bob Duncan’s stark black and white photos; Jason Fischer’s gangsta rap Pop photo art; and Tina Tibbs’ sublimely textured digital photo collages.

The LJAC is at 2510 No. 24th St. Call 502-5291 for hours. Visit lovesjazzartcenter.org.

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Art from the Streets

September 1, 2011 2 comments

I am not an art reviewer, but on occasion I am called upon to write about art, and in this case street art. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) discusses an exhibition from a couple years ago at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center that focused on Art from the Streets. The idea by then LJAC administrative director Michelle Troxclair, who is an artist herself, was to give artists who don’t often get the chance to show in gallery settings an opportunity to present some of their work. I was captivated by most of what I saw. At least one of the four artists featured in the show is a genuine celebrity – mixed martial arts figher Houston Alexander. This blog contains a profile I did on Alexander.

 

 

photo

NME Crew Omaha, ©photo by Ginkz

 

Art from the Streets

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Urban Pop Funk might best describe Art from the Streets at Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Curated by LJAC administrative director Michelle Troxclair, the exhibition highlights the work of four Omaha artists whose subject matter, approach and mediums reflect art trends emanating from the inner city.

Troxclair organized the show to give props to artists of color whose self-taught airbrush-graffiti-graphic art remains off-the-grid. By presenting it in a gallery she’s validating this grassroots “street” art and implicitly slamming elitists who dismiss it.

“There’s a bias in the art world as to what is fine art and what is not, and there are some art forms young people have been putting out there for some time that have just not been validated by the art world,” she said. “These art forms were born in urban communities and I thought our (LJAC’s) position in this community gave us a unique opportunity to put some deserving young people’s art out there.”

To represent this movement, she selected artists with made reps for keeping it real: Graphic artist-digital photographer Jason Fischer, aka, Ginkz; airbrush artists Bruce Briggs and Spot; and graffiti artist/hip hop ambassador Houston Alexander.

The street-themed opening included sports cars out front inked with the latest graphic design detail work and Alexander on site creating two original graffitos. Together with the stylings of spoken word artists and the featured gents talking about their work, you had a street salon thing going on.

Fischer, whose business is called Surreal Media Lab, makes visceral, cerebral, suave images for magazines, CD covers, web sites. His shots of urban desolation bring an edgy, social critique. “Wasted” is one of several Fischer pics dealing with notions of refuse. He turns a littered gutter grate into a poetic indictment of excess and waste. Cutting through the black and white is a Coke can caught up in the wash, a glaring red symbol for capitalism’s disposable, discarded flotsam and jetsam.

He likes strong contrasts. “Cross the Line” pictures a crumpled yellow crime scene tape. It’s an interesting take on these garish plastic artifacts of violent, often fatal crime scenes. What do they symbolize once an investigation ends? Are they merely debris or markers commemorating tragedy? Or talisman warning of danger?

His “Razor’s Edge” series makes near abstractions of barbed wire. Troxclair told this reviewer the wire’s a security deterrent outside a youth detention center. That information lends the images deeper meaning. Yet no panel-guide text notes the context or artist intent for any exhibit works, an omission that hurts the show.

Briggs displays amazing control, precision and artistry in his expressive airbrush portraits, some mixed with acrylic. His pieces range from lush, glowing, colorful reveries of iconic pop stars (Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, P. Diddy Combs) to intense, moody, interpretive glimpses — in muted black-gray shadings — of Mos Def and Miles Davis. The mesmerizing Davis portrait, “Miles Away,” captures the jazz great in the throes of creative brainstorm, fingering his forehead as if a horn.

Spot’s equally impressive riffs on pop stars are by-turns whimsical (Barack Obama as a hipster in “Ba Roc-a-fella”) and mythic (Scarface’s Tony Montana in “The World is Mine”). His stunning portrait “Tupac” raises the late rapper to Sinatra Cool status in a swirl of joint smoke framing the artist in all his fly machismo splendor. The dense, abstract-like “Blue Pride” reveals another aspect of Spot’s vision.

Alexander’s large canvas graffitos, propped up on concrete blocks, illustrate the viivid style of his box car, bridge, wall tags and murals. Fisher photos document some scrib handiwork. One, “Inner Workings,” depicts a mural on a brick wall whose gaping hole exposes interior piping, adding layers of texture and intrigue.

Aptly, Troxclair incorporates tools of these artists’ trade, including cans of spray paint, along with apparel they’ve adorned.

 

 

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s passion for Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its role in rebirthing North Omaha

August 28, 2011 9 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center in North Omaha is a symbol for the transition point that this largely African-American area is poised at – as decades of neglect are about to be impacted by a spate of major redevelopment. LJAC and some projects directly to the south of it along North 24th Street represented steps in the right direction but since then little else has happened in the way of renewal. Development efforts farther south, east, and west had little or no carryover effect. The subject of this story however is not so much the LJAC as it is its former director, Neville Murray, who was very much the director when I did this piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about three years ago. Murray expressed, just as his successor does today, the hope that the center would serve as anchor and catalyst for a boom in new activity in the area. The center never really realized that goal, but it still could. Murray is a passionate man, artist, and arts administrator with an interesting perspective on things since he’s not from Omaha originally. Indeed, he’s a native Jamaican. But as he explains right at the top of my story, he identifies closely with the African-American experience here and he’s committed to making a difference in the Omaha African-American community – one that’s been waiting a long time for change. If it’s up to him, it will soon come.

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s passion for Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its role in rebirthing North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“I’m an artist, first and foremost. I think everything else is just kind of a reflection of the art,” said Neville Murray, director of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center (LJAC), 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha. He came to the States in 1975 from his native Jamaica on a track scholarship that saw him compete for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s made America and Nebraska his second home, but  it is the north Omaha African American community the center serves where his heart lies.

“I consider myself African-American,” he said. “North Omaha is such a tremendous culture. There’s so much talent and there’s so much need. If we can just inspire kids to become artists or to becomeinvolved in the arts or to realize the role the arts can play in their lives…

“We’re really trying to change the dynamic by bringing world class arts programming to north Omaha and to bring in art one would not ordinarily see. Art is a catalyst for change. We’ve seen it downtown. And we think this can be a catalyst for change in our community.”

During a recent interview in the center conference room, which doubles as a storage space with stacks of art works leaning against the walls, he alluded to the year-and-a-half-old LJAC as trying to separate itself from “other organizations in the community” that have failed. The center’s “state of the art facility” is a big start. Another is his long track record as an administrator with the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC), where he worked prior to opening the center in 2005. Well-versed in grant writing and well-connected to the art world, he’s determined to avoid the pitfalls.

“We have to be at a different level in terms of our 501C3 meeting certain criteria with accountability (for programs and grants) and ownership of collections,” he said. “We have to set high standards. For me it’s critical we operate at a high level because of the history of some things.” When asked if he meant the troubled Great Plains Black History Museum a block to the east, he confirmed he did. He said that other venue’s long-standing problems of unarchived materials, unrealized repairs, unpolitic moves and unanswered questions stem from ineffective governance.

“It can’t be a hand-picked board. It needs to be a real board,” he said. “We have a great, pro-active, eight-member board.” The LJAC also has ongoing Peter Kiewit Foundation support. Even with that the center operates on the margin, with revenues coming chiefly from rental fees and grants rather than its light walk-in traffic. Murray was a one-man band for months after his only staffer resigned, leaving him doing everything from curating exhibits to cleaning floors. A Kiewit grant’s made possible the hiring of a new assistant. Still, he acknowledges problems — from the phone not always being manned to the doors not always being open during normal visiting hours to inadequate marketing and membership campaigns.

 

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

 

 

 

“I wear many different hats. There’s only so much you can do. It’s frustrating,” he said. “That has been an issue, you bet. I think that’s just part of our growing pains. Hopefully, that will resolve itself at some point in time. I’m not going to be here forever, but I want to make sure I put in place processes that can ensure the success of this institution into the future.”

Another barrier the center faces is one of identity and image. Some assume its solely focused on the legacy of Preston Love or a venture of the late musicians’s family. Neither is true. Others think it’s primarily a performance space when in fact it’s an exhibition/education space. Still others confuse it as a social service site. None of it deters him. “Ultimately, the goal for this institution is to be one of just a handful of accredited African American arts institutions” in America, he said.

The center grew out of many discussions Murray engaged in with members of the African American community. “We’d been meeting for years with a variety of folks about the need for an institution such as this in north Omaha,” he said.

Murray got to know greater Nebraska and north Omaha in particular as the NAC’s first multicultural coordinator in the 1990s. His work today at the LJAC is a natural extension of how his personal journey as an artist and arts administrator evolved to embrace his own Jamaican identity, the wider African American experience and the need to create more recognition and opportunities for fellow artists of color.

“It enriched me so much being able to travel all over Nebraska and work with indigenous folks to promote the arts,” he said. “To be able to work with different cultures, Latino and American Indian cultures, really inspired me, not just as an artist but in terms of my awareness. I began to realize the arts play a critical role in cultural development. A culture without art is dead. Art is what makes us human.”

Besides, he fell in love with the state’s wide open spaces, variable topography, classic seasons and Northern Hemispheric light. “Nebraska’s such a beautiful state. If you drive straight from here to Colorado you don’t see it. But if you go just a few miles north of I-80 you’re in the Sand Hills and the vistas are just magnificent,” said Murray, whose paintings reflect his “love of nature” in iconic earth-tone images of the Great Plains or pastel seascapes of his tropical homeland.

He came to the NAC at a crucible time. His newly formed post was a response to protests over inequitable funding for artists of color. Inequity extended to museums/galleries, where works about and by black artists were absent, and to academia, where, he said, art textbooks at UNL failed to mention one of its own, grad Aaron Douglas, famed “illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Murray’s experience working with Nebraska’s Ponca population in their effort to be reinstated within the greater Ponca Tribe reflected his own sense of dislocation from his roots and the severing African Americans feel from their heritage.

“The Ponca had to relearn their traditions, so the NAC helped them get the grant funding to network back with the Southern Ponca down in Oklahoma to rediscover their dances and cultural traditions,” he said. “If as a tribe you’re cut off you lose a sense of your identity. I can relate to that because there was a period in my life  when I can say I was kind of embarrassed at some of my rural upbringing. My grandmother used to walk five miles to market. People come from all over up in the mountains and bring their wares. Colors everywhere. Fruits of every ilk. Wonderful old stories. It took me a while to really appreciate all that. Now I look at it as a treasure and something we’re losing rapidly in the islands, I might add.”

“As black folks we’ve lost a sense of our identity. We’re confused. We don’t understand a lot of our traditions, even what tribes we come from. All of that was lost with slavery. Slavery’s had such a critical roles in our lives. It’s almost like we’re brand new,” he said. “Our whole life is a search, a journey for identity.”

Today, there’s more emphasis on black heritage and black art. “I think there’s much greater appreciation for art and artistic expression,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see artists of color in Art News now or other major art publications.”

Despite inroads, the place black artists hold in their own community and in the wider sphere of life is a work in progress. “It seems as black artists we’re always trying to validate ourselves. A few will come through. The flavor of the day, so to speak,” he said. “But as artists of color we we’re so often stigmatized. We have to get beyond that and recognize our art as an expression of our culture. We have a tendency in our community to look at arts as only recreation or extracurricular.”

His own ground breaking path reflects the possibilities for artists of color today. “I’ve kind of been doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done before,” he said. He was one of the first state multicultural coordinators in the nation. He pioneered the use of digital technology for Nebraska-curated shows. He organized the first comprehensive touring exhibit of contemporary Jamaican art with the 2000 Soon Come: The Art of Contemporary Jamaica. The project took him to parts of the island he’d never visited and introduced him to its diverse spectrum of artists.

He continues to celebrate art and to explore “what does it mean to be an artist of color?” at the LJAC, where he’s brought exhibits by renowned artists Frederick Brown, Faith Ringgold and Ibiyinka. In late November paintings from the Revival Series of noted artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes opens. The LJAC will publish its first catalogue for the show.

On display from time to time is work by local artists like Wanda Ewing, whose images deal with being a woman of color. It hosts regular art classes for adults/kids and occasional lectures/workshops. In keeping with its historic, symbol-laden location, the LJAC presents socially relevant programs, such as a History of Omaha Jazz panel held this year and the current Freedom Journey civil rights exhibit. All around the center, businesses flourished, streets teemed, marches proceeded, riots burned and hot jazz sessions played out. In a nod to political awareness, activist Angela Davis will appear there November 11.

Murray’s penchant for technology is evident in interactive stations/kiosks. An oral history project he’s doing with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he also studied, documents, in high def video, the lives/stories of older African American residents. The materials will inform a documentary about the history of black Omaha and its music heritage. The archived interviews will be available to scholars. He looks forward to curating a new exhibit around a group of photos from a local collector that record some of the earliest images of local African American life. A selection from the LJAC permanent collection displays photos of early African American scenes and moments from the career of namesake Preston Love.

Murray’s also in discussions for the LJAC to be an outreach center for New York’s Lincoln Center. “I’m really excited about that,” he said. “That gives us an opportunity to bring in some coeducational programming and performances.” It’s all about his trying to engage people with art in news ways. He said, “I would hope I bring a certain creativity to this position as an artist.”

He knows he and the center will be judged by their longevity. “You have to have a period of time when people can see if you’re going to be here for a while,” he said.” “I think folks feel good about we’re doing. I think people realize my heart is in the right place. I have a love of this community and the culture. It’s a huge challenge. It’s a big responsibility. But it’s been a wonderful experience.”

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