‘A Brief History’ Highlights African American Art in Bridgehampton

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"Bantu Belle" by Jules Arthur. Courtesy Southampton Arts Center

It still astonishes Dexter Wimberly that African-American portraiture is regarded as “fresh” and “new” — when it has existed for centuries.

But it is just now that the market is paying attention.

“Today, there are far more opportunities for black artists, black art dealers and even images of black people in contemporary art than there have ever been,” Wimberly said. “And these are not just black collectors, but collectors from all stripes who are interested in seeing the world as it really exists, not in some sort of made-up world where everyone looks the same.

“Anytime anyone looks at a work of art that shows diversity, it opens the door for conversations that need to be had,” he continued. “My perspective is that the more people talk and the more people share ideas, the better off we all are — as opposed to being insular and each person sticking to their own group.”

In celebration of Black History Month, Wimberly — who serves as the executive director of Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, in New Jersey — has curated 45 pieces by five African-American artists for the exhibition, “A Brief History,” opening Saturday at RJD Gallery in Bridgehampton.

“I think politically, it’s a nice way to support a little bit of unity or create it where it didn’t exist. Right now, I’m 67 years old, I’ve never seen the country so upside down,” owner Richard Demato said. “I think anything we could do to provide equality and stability will be welcome. And, quite frankly, the art is very edgy. It’s very special.”

From the detailed portraiture of Margaret Bowland and the complex multimedia work of Jules Arthur to figurative painting from Sylvia Maier and Phillip Thomas’s perspective of black culture from Jamaica, the work is undoubtedly demanding — not just of viewers, but of Wimberly himself.

“Typically, to be totally frank, I think it’s a challenge to put together any kind of exhibition that’s connected with something like Black History Month, because it’s something people have very strong feelings about, in terms of how they think the month should be celebrated, or how the subject should be represented in the works that are in the show,” he said. “But for me, my interest as a curator is really connected to history in general, so I look at it as a wonderful opportunity and challenge to put the show together.”

The exhibition also includes one piece from Fahamu Pecou — a self-portrait, flanked by two bodyguards, except he is not exactly himself. He is Barack Obama.

He titled it “UnAmerican Idol.”

“I think that there’s something quite striking about the painting because it’s provocative. It’s very engaging. The gaze of the main figure is very direct, and there’s a certain power in the pose and power in the fact that you know the person in the middle is a very important person,” Wimberly said. “And this idea of ‘UnAmerican Idol,’ it’s a play on ‘American Idol,’ and it’s a play on the idea that a lot of people didn’t think Barack Obama was American. It has a lot of layers.”

Politics aside, the body of work serves as an important reminder that there is not just beauty in diversity, but relevance in portraiture. It still matters, Wimberly said.

“I think that, in many circles, people feel that figurative painting or portraiture is an area of art where everything’s already been done. But I don’t believe that,” he said. “I think that there’s still stories to be told and voices to be heard with each generation. So I think they’re contributing to that conversation, that ongoing dialogue. I think there’s something powerful about portraiture. I think that’s why people gravitate toward it so much, after so many centuries.”

From Wimberly’s perspective — raised in Brooklyn and still based on the East Coast — the only constant in the art market is what’s interesting to collectors is what’s interesting to galleries.

“But on the other hand, galleries that want to stand out and make a name for themselves have to be willing to show work that isn’t just run of the mill. And this show? It will stand out,” he said with a laugh. “I think that’s safe to say.”

“A Brief History,” featuring work by Jules Arthur, Margaret Bowland, Sylvia Maier, Fahamu Pecou, and Phillip Thomas, will open with a reception on Saturday, February 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at RJD Gallery, located at 2385 Main Street in Bridgehampton. The show will remain on view through March 18. For more information, please call (631) 725-1161 or visit rjdgallery.com.

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