Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
Somehow I developed an unkind tendency to underestimate at the end of each year the amount of work accomplished during the previous 12 months. I used to like the feeling of being surprised to discover how much really got done, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. It’s just not as fair to the truth, and some of my best go-for-the-gold efforts, as such an assessment should be.
But my New Year 2017 resolutions include a commitment to breaking the self-negation habit. As a practice, it’s just not a helpful one when it comes to planning future projects or establishing once-and-for-all final deadlines for current endeavors. In addition, miscalculating earnestly-applied efforts is unfair to the integrity of the work itself, as well as to those who helped make it happen and give it increased value. Therefore, in honor of the difficult, to paraphrase author Alice Walker, below is a list of links to tributes, essays, and reviews that I managed to share while continuing to work on my current nonfiction book. These are followed by further reflections on the year that was and the year to come.
Year 2016 Bright Skylark Table of Contents
Ripples of Political Pandemonium
One of the most challenging aspects of accomplishing anything of significance in the year 2016 was remaining focused on priorities. That can be difficult throughout the course of any election year but it was exceptionally so during the 2016 battle for the White House.
The various low-points and dubious tactics that resulted in the United States’ new President-Elect have been chronicled sufficiently enough that they do not need to be repeated here. What does bear re-emphasizing is that not only did the American people elect a new president whose worldwide business empire practically guarantees compromising conflicts of interest. They also chose to endorse standards of conduct likely to create ripples of political pandemonium for years to come (though hopefully and prayerfully––not).
So why is that? Because we cannot sanction free-for-all lawlessness when it suits the purposes of one class or race within a society while constructing billion-dollar prison complexes in which to enslave those for whom such lawlessness has not been deemed appropriate. This is more than a matter of practicing double standards. The issue is recognizing the chaos that can stem from specific choices and, for better or worse, proclaiming ownership to correct the damage incurred.
Video Notes on Barack Obama: Giving an American President His Proper Due
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.