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Celebrating Black History Month with Art

Unbeknownst to me, on the same Saturday night that Facing Deconstruction was opening at Dunedin Wine & Brew, The Safety Harbor Museum & Cultural Center was hosting a Black History Month Celebration with artwork from Gallery 909, an African-American art gallery located in St. Petersburg’s historic Midtown neighborhood.

The Safety Harbor Museum & Cultural Center
The Safety Harbor Museum & Cultural Center

Thankfully, it is still Black History month, and the artwork was still on display when I wandered into the Safety Harbor Museum this afternoon, camera in hand.  On display are Charles Axt’s and Cora Marshall’s paintings; Andreas Goff’s clay sculptures; Major Gladden’s woodwork; and more.

Charles Axt and Cora Marshall
The two paintings on the left are by Charles Axt, and the painting on the right is one of Cora Marshall’s.
Cora Marshall wall
Cora Marshall’s Sea Dreaming series (paintings) and more.

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As I gazed upon these works of art, I thought about the traditions that inspired them and realized that I knew next to nothing about the history of African-American art.  So I searched the internet, and here’s what I found out:

The foundation of African-American art arrived in colonial America with the first slaves.  Coming from West Africa, these individuals came from a culture that celebrated art.  Here, art was part of a religious experience. Masks and sculptures/figures were often used in religious rituals.

As the African experience melded with the African-American experience, potential inspirations grew.  Artwork became inspired by the Civil Rights movement and a drive to counter stereotypical images of African-Americans.

Still, African-American artists struggled to get their work displayed in art galleries.  As a result, many sold directly to the public.  The Florida Highwaymen, especially, were known for this.  They sold their Florida landscape paintings out of the trunks of their cars in the 1950’s.  Once sold for $25, these paintings now sell for closer to $1000.

The development of African-American art galleries, like Gallery 909, was essential to the success of African-American art in the 20th century and beyond.  If you are interested in viewing some African-American artwork, Gallery 909 is a great place to start.  You can attend their Black Arts Festival this Saturday, February 27th, for free.  You may also want to check out Kara Walker’s exhibition at HCC Dale Mabry Campus Gallery 221 through March 3, 2016.





Jennifer Ring

Jennifer Ring is a freelance writer & photographer living in the Tampa Bay area, on Florida’s west coast, home to some of the best beaches in the state.