Contemporary artists shed light on black West
CARTERSVILLE, Ga. (AP) – There’s mountain man Jim Beckwourth, legendary lawman Bass Reeves and Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point.
Here, too, is the slave-turned-explorer, known only as York. And Stagecoach Mary, the cussing, gun-toting driver who delivered mail in Montana into her 70s. And Cathay Williams, who fought as William Cathay in the Army for two years before she was discovered to be a woman.
Now, these black figures and their contemporaries, who date back to the Civil War but were excluded from the American West narrative, are honored in more than 60 paintings and sculptures at the Booth Western Art Museum. The exhibit, called The Black West: Buffalo Soldiers, Black Cowboys and Untold Stories, runs through March 22.
Seth Hopkins, executive director of the museum and co-curator of the exhibit, said the show attempts to honor black life on the frontier.
“For everything that ever happened in the West, there were black people there at some point, doing the same jobs as everybody else, having the same experiences,” Hopkins said. “It’s just that they’re not in the history books, not shown in the movies too much and not represented in the
mainstream of Western art.”
The exhibit, which opened in December, features the work of 16 living black artists – far more than exhibit organizers thought they could assemble. A companion exhibit, Bronze Buckaroos: Mythic Images of the Black West, features two dozen movie posters dating back to the 1920s.
Some of the pieces in The Black West feature more well-known subjects. Beckwourth, an explorer and mountain man who worked as a fur trapper in the 1820s and discovered what is now known as the Beckwourth Pass in Southern California, is depicted alongside his horse on a canyon trail in a painting by Louisiana native Ivan Stewart. A bronze sculpture by Kentuckian Ed Hamilton features York, who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition and was the first black man to travel overland to the Pacific Ocean.
Others are lesser known or even abstractions meant to pay tribute. In Dirt Farmers, a bronze sculpture by Ed Dwight of Missouri, the eyes of a
middle-aged couple are filled with the optimism of two homesteaders eager to forge their future on the frontier. Two works by Ezra Tucker pay homage to black cowboys and Indians.
The exhibit also features another group often excluded in the American West story – women – while other pieces give a nod to the African ancestry of many black Americans. Earnest Varner’s A Noble Past shows a Buffalo Soldier fighting alongside a Zulu warrior.
As a young soldier in the Army during the 1960s, Varner hadn’t heard much about the heroics of black soldiers in the military. Then, at a black
history month program at Fort Carson, Colo., he learned about the Buffalo Soldiers, so nicknamed by the Native Americans they fought after the Civil War.
Upon hearing their story, Varner was proud, elated and angry.
“I’d gone through all that military training and I had not heard anything about blacks … contributing that much to the West,” Varner said. “I said
at that time that if I had an opportunity to use my art to tell part of a story about the Buffalo Soldiers, I would.”
The story will not end with the exhibit, though the show currently has no plans to travel beyond the Booth Western Art Museum. The museum already owns six of the pieces from The Black West and plans to add up to four more of the works to its permanent collection, Hopkins said.
“(They) will take their rightful place within the whole story of the West,” he said.
On the Net:
Booth Western Art Museum: http://www.boothmuseum.org
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