Harlem Fine Arts Show Comes to DC

When I was a cub reporter, covering courts in St. Lucie County, Florida, one of my favorite offices to visit belonged to a public defender named Azim Ramelize. African American and disabled from a gunshot to the back when he was a teenaged gang member in New York, he knew a lot more than anyone else about juvenile crime and its roots. I went on to win some awards for my reporting on juvenile justice—in no small part due to all he taught me while sitting in that office.

But that’s not the only thing I learned there. Azim covered the walls of that tiny office, floor to ceiling, with art by African American artists. I was mesmerized by the images, and found myself making excuses to go talk to him just so I could sit in his art gallery. My college English thesis focused on a 19th century African American writer, so the display reinforced my fascination with an artistic and literary genre that produces a powerful beauty, grace and perseverance wrought by great suffering.

All the memories of Azim’s office came racing back this week when I found out that the Harlem Fine Arts Show is in DC this weekend—a first for the traveling show. It kicked off last night with a reception at the SunTrust Bank building on New York Avenue, and goes through Sunday.

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I’m excited to go to the show this weekend and see what contemporary black artists are producing.

“What, historically, has been a salient characteristic of African American music—its boundless capacity to absorb influences from diverse cultures and reinterpret them through the African American  experience—is increasingly a process evidenced in the work of African American visual artists,” Halima Taha writes in the show’s program.

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The top center image, which appears to be a cameo profile painted over a Civil War-era photograph, reminds me of a local artist named Sonya Lawyer, who I discovered a couple years ago at the (e)merge art fair. She has amassed old photo albums of African American families—all of them “strong and proud,” she writes—and puts them in a new context with her multi-hued, hand-dyed cotton:

Images from Sonya Lawyer's website

Images from Sonya Lawyer’s website

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And while I’m talking about great DC-based African American artists….

Any art collector in DC—and anywhere, for that matter—knows the effervescent and colorful abstract work of Sam Gilliam, whose paintings and mixed-media I’ve gotten to see up close in a few houses I’ve written about.

Giliam is represented through Connersmith. The photo is from the gallery's website.

Gilliam is represented through Connersmith. The photo is from the gallery’s website.

Connersmith. also reps a young guy named Sheldon Scott, whose self portraits, photography and sculpture made from rocks, hammers, ropes—even neon—is arresting to say the least.

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Back to the Harlem Fine Arts Show: Many of the artists were in town today to meet students from area schools—what a powerful message it must be for these kids to see people who look like them producing such memorable sculpture and imagery.

“It’s always great to have students come in to meet working artists,” said Dion Clarke, founder of the Harlem Fine Arts Show. “The youth get to see creative people doing something they love and providing for themselves and their families. It illustrates the point that you can follow your passion and thrive; sometimes we forget that as adults.”

Indeed. I plan to drag my kids down there this weekend.

Here’s one more teaser from the show:

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