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Overtown, and Miami-Dade Public Library, hold a treasure trove of art

by Christopher Norwood

People often ask me, “Chris, when did start being an art collector?”

Some background: I’m a ’70s baby whose adolescence was co-opted by Run DMC’s self-titled album in 1983, their breakthrough album “King of Rock” in 1985 and their magnum opus, “Raising Hell,” in 1986.

Like most kids on my block, I wanted a puffy leather goose-down jacket, a pair of shell-toe Adidas and a godfather homberg hat. I wanted to be smart — like DMC said, “Since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge and after 12th grade I went straight to college.”

All of these were prominent themes in their music but the artwork of the album covers was just as important, and I put them on my wall. They were magnificent works and, thus, the beginning of my art collection. Graffiti artists were legends in my neighborhood, unknown identities for maximum artistic potential to provide art without adulation.

Like so many families in African-American communities, we had pictures of our “Holy Trinity” framed in our living room: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus of Nazareth. I appreciated these images as artwork, too. For many who live in poverty or in working-class communities, it’s hard to recognize the visual art that surrounds you. The psychological result of struggle, sometimes results in a disregard for the visual beauty in that struggle.

But in Miami, black art is growing. Overtown has seen a resurgence in the arts, spearheaded by the city of Miami Community Redevelopment Agency and the Lyric Theatre/Black Archives. They are helping revive the rich legacy of Overtown from the pre-civil-rights era when venues like the Lyric, Harlem Square Club and the Cotton Club attracted black and white patrons.

And Miami-Dade Public Library is playing an indirect, but significant role.

In keeping with this revival, “Elizabeth Catlett and the Black Women’s Contribution to American Democracy,” produced by Hampton University Museum, the International Review for African American Art and the City of Miami Overtown-Park West CRA, will be on exhibit at the historic Ward Rooming House.

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was the foremost black woman artist of her time. She was a master printmaker and sculptor, her work often re-imagined Black women in familiar places — home, work and play — with dignity and grace. 

Because of the racial discrimination Catlett encountered in 1947 when she and other artists were driven into seclusion after the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, she moved to Mexico. There, she began working at the Taller de Grafica Popular and associated with artist Diego Rivera. She gave up her American citizenship so that she could continue to make art that spoke to dignifying black women as her subjects.

She lived and worked in Mexico For the next 70 years, while leading the Sculpture Department at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City from 1959 until her retirement in 1976.

The exhibition includes 30 of her original prints on paper, including her monumental 1946 “Negro Woman” linocut series. This series acknowledges African-American women’s historic oppression and celebrates their resistance, survival, and achievements. At that time, they were distributed widely in segregated schools, churches and libraries. They had a vast social impact. While many of the linocuts portray famous black women such as Harriet Tubman and Phillis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth, several depict ordinary women in their everyday lives. Catlett wanted to show people what it was like to be a black woman, whether she was working the fields, in church or the focus of discrimination and humiliation.

As I was researching for the curation of this exhibit, I learned that only three institutions owned the entire “Negro Woman” linocut series. One of them, of course, being Hampton University Museum, the oldest African-American art museum in the country, founded in 1868. Another owner is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the world’s largest museums with more than 2 million works of art spanning 5,000 years.

Last, and to my utter surprise, is the Miami-Dade Public Library. 

Earlier this month, I visited the main branch with my library card in tow and asked to see the prints. The informative and helpful Oscar Fuentes, of the library’s Art Services and Exhibitions Department, took me to the vault in the basement where several thousand works of art reside. Miami-Dade’s is one of the rare library systems in the country that maintains a fine-art collection, started in 1973, with a focus on African-American, Latino, and Miami artists. 

There’s a signed Roy Lichtenstein lithograph “ Red Blue Explosion.” There are three Picasso works on paper and three Andy Warhols; at least one is a “Cream of Mushroom “ poster that administrators flew up to New York for him to sign.

And this: Until the 1990s, you could borrow up to two pieces of art for the weekend with your library card. 

In 1985, Catlett came to Miami for the library’s annual Black History Month exhibition. She was selected as the featured artist by the exhibitions guest curator, Miami artist Gene Tinnie: “This was the opportunity to make one of my dreams come true, so without hesitation I recommended Elizabeth Catlett, if it were at all possible to reach her in Mexico, where she was living, and to transport her and her work to Miami.”

The exhibition would consist mainly of original prints (sculptures would have been too costly to ship). Gene told me that, “She opened her remarks by asking a most insightful question, which has continuing relevance, which was, ‘Why it is that black music in America has survived and thrived with so much popularity and success, whereas the same is not true of Black visual art.’” 

No one had the answer, so she provided it: During slavery, by law the enslaved population owned nothing, not even their time, and everything they produced was owned by the slaveholders. In that circumstance, it was possible for people to work at their assigned tasks and produce music at the same time. Visual art, by contrast, required time away from forced labor, which was simply hardly available. Even if those who wished to be creative could find or make the time, they needed the material resources of tools and materials. And any who were fortunate enough to produce works of creative art in those circumstances had to contend with the fact that whatever they produced became the property of their so-called ‘owners.’”

Today, we see the work of black artists escalating in price and in exposure. In Miami, art can transform public and private spaces once thought undesirable. I’m grateful to play a small part to promote Overtown’s Arts and Entertainment resurgence with the art of Hampton University Museum in Virginia. As the oldest African-American art auseum and oldest African-American Museum in America our mission is the same as Catlett’s: “My purpose is to present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy, and to exhibit my work where black people can visit and find art to which they can relate.”

Christopher Norwood, J.D. is the national treasurer of the National Hampton Alumni Association, Member of the Editorial Board of the International Review for African American Art and founder of Hampton Art Lovers.