'2-5-Oh!: Surprise, Struggle and Sadness in the Mound City' Celebrates and Reflects Upon 250 Years
St. Louis’ yearlong anniversary celebration, currently underway, has already featured a rich mix of events and programs by many of the city’s largest and most significant arts and culture organizations. But there are many smaller and lesser-known (and not so insignificant) groups offering their own unique perspective on the 250-year theme. One that requires our attention is the Alliance of Black Art Galleries, an affiliation of eight African-American-owned and focused art galleries, each producing separate but connected stl250 exhibits.
Salon 53, a private residential gallery that’s part of the Alliance, recently opened “2-5-Oh!: Surprise, Sadness and Struggle in the Mound City.” The show encompasses an impressive array of work in both vision and style, examining 250 years both joyfully and tearfully. As gallery owner and curator Freida Wheaton wrote, we should celebrate the city’s anniversary, of course, but it “must be balanced with the sadness and struggles that enveloped the region across that history.”
The show manages to do exactly that. Paintings, pyrography, objects both found and crafted, collage, photography, sculpture, textile, ceramics, glass, mixed media and an art “assemblage” combine to tell stories that remind us that African-Americans have been a significant part of the social and cultural fabric of the city since its earliest days. “Saint Luminosity – Musical Interlude,” for example, by Is’Mima Nebt’Kata, flows through the cultural evolution of Mound City from its tribal roots, through slavery to modern times. Awash in pastels of red, pink and blue, the textile piece simultaneously pays tribute to St. Louis’ architectural and musical contributions to the world.
Several tributes are paid to individuals, like Solomon Thurman’s striking “Chuck Berry,” who, white-suited, plays guitar on a ballroom floor with the dancers behind him captured in physical expressions of joy. Or Adrienne Jenkins Patel’s loving portrait of Harriett Robinson Scott (wife of Dred Scott) in the folk art style common in the mid-1800s and later. Robert A. Ketchens contributes a dynamic and luxuriant painting, mixed-media, photo montage of Scott Joplin.
“New Testament: The Crucifixion & Resurrection of Homer G. Phillips,” by R2C2H2 Tha Artivist (Ronald Herd II), is as dramatic as its title. The image of Phillips divides the canvas in half as in a crucifix, his arms outstretched with nails in his palms and blood flowing forth. He looks down to his right where a nurse holds a baby—an unabashed reference to Madonna and Child—while on the other half a murder is being committed, with the now historic landmark Homer G. Phillips Hospital complex seen in the distance. It speaks to the segregated environment to which Phillips managed—after a public and bitter struggle over funds—to build the city’s only black hospital. Phillips was shot and killed before construction began and his killer(s) were never brought to justice.
There are serious themes too. The Delmar Divide figures in more than one of the works, notably Freida Wheaton’s own, “Don’t Be Afraid,” an “assemblage” of baby shoes in a tray which sits on map of the city with the Delmar Divide running down the center. To the south, the map is clearly-defined cartography; to the north, there are blurred boundaries and nothing so elegant and organized as cartography, but rather an emblematic, chaotic frontier. The baby shoes emotionally connect us to many lives lost and city race history in a personal way.
There are many more fine works in “2-5-Oh!,” contributed by a total of 25 artists who either live in St. Louis or have close ties to the city. Beyond the educational value and the artistic excellence the exhibit contains, perhaps its most singular achievement is its function as a springboard for a larger meditation, bringing to the forefront the overwhelming suggestion that segregation, whether literal or in spirit, robs us all of a deeper and richer cultural and human existence.
“2-5-Oh! Surprise, Sadness and Struggle in the Mound City,” will remain on exhibit through 2014 at Salon 53, a private, residential gallery available by invitation and appointment only. Private group showings are available. For information call (314) 494-4660.