August Wilson Center exhibit looks at the keeping of memories

After being officially open for just one year, the August Wilson Center, Downtown, has launched its inaugural art exhibit, and it's an ambitious one indeed.

A unique exhibit exploring Pittsburgh family life, "In My Father's House" features five rooms with six African-American points of view, showing the diversity that exists within our community.

While the title comes from a passage in the Bible (John 14:2, which begins "In my Father's house, there are many mansions ..."), the context of the exhibit, while certainly spiritually evocative, is not a religious but secular one.

"What's neat about this exhibit is that it is actually created like a house," says Erin O'Neill, exhibitions manager for the August Wilson Center.

Each room is organized, designed and presented by a nationally recognized curator, highlighting the way people of African descent preserve and display visual art and cultural material in their homes.

"In theory, it tells the story of a fictional Pittsburgh family, their hopes, dreams, struggles and triumphs," O'Neill says. "Like most of us, they have collected the things they love: the things that help tell who they are."

For example, in the "Entry Way," organized by artist and curator Mary Martin, photographs of local families dating as far back as the early 19th-century feature first-generation slaves and their descendants.

"These photos were collected all around the region in African-American communities," O'Neill says. "Mary made high-resolution scans of them and gave back the originals, but she kept the names of the families and included them in the exhibit."

As with the photographs, much of the art and objects included in this exhibit is on loan from local families; other pieces are on loan from national collections including personal and commercial galleries, universities and art museums.

In the "Living Room," organized by Lonnie Graham, professor of integrative arts and photography at Penn State University's State college campus, and Deborah Willis, professor of photography and imaging at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, most of the items are owned by Graham, such as the red-velvet Victorian couch and chair that belonged to his great aunt, among other furnishings. And the photographs that hang on the walls, which feature Homewood residents, were taken by Graham, as well, with the exception of two Charles "Teenie" Harris photographs of domestic scenes that are part of the August Wilson Center's collection. For this room, Willis designed the wallpaper, which features a repeated pattern comprised of a little chained slave on his knees.

Cheryl Finley, assistant professor of art history and visual culture at Cornell University's New York City campus, organized the "Kitchen" as a reflection of "African American Diaspora" with several campy, '70s-style photographs by Hank Willis-Thomas and a banquette covered in Obama fabric Finley found in South Africa in 2009.

The room also contains pieces by well-known contemporary artists, such as a print by Romare Bearden (1911-88) titled "Sorcerer's Village"; a semi-abstract print by Chris Offili titled "Malcolm X"; and several porcelain plates by Cary May Weems that commemorate people places and events, such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, Harlem and Detroit.

The "Dining Room," organized by Smithsonian curator Tuliza Fleming, features works by African-American masters, such as two original Romare Bearden mixed-media collages and an abstract painting titled "The Fireships" by Frank Bowling.

"It's an amazing piece," O'Neill says. "It keeps growing on me."

Also on display, Jeff Donaldson's (1932-2004) portrait of a couple, "Victory," on cardboard may be made of humble materials, but it is a masterwork of brushstrokes and color.

The exhibit also features a short film titled "From Drums to Zeros and Ones" that was created by independent curator and filmmaker Demetria Royals. The seven-minute film chronicles African-American history from slavery to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It's an emotional snapshot from the first footfalls of Africans in America to today.

"I have seen many, many people tearing up and very moved after watching this video," O'Neill says.

O'Neill says the exhibit asks the visitor to consider the different ways of approaching the preservation of the material culture of people of African decent.

"It poses the question of what is important to keep for future generations? What do we hold dear? What is it that we pass on to those who come after us and what stories do those objects tell about the people who lived or still live in these rooms," O'Neill says.

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