The year 2020 took much more from Atlanta’s Art + Design world than it gave. You could say, “Bah, COVID,” but it’s more than that. Yes, the novel coronavirus changed plans at museums and galleries and helped us get used to online exhibits (some more successful than others). It also gave art makers time to breathe, consider and create.
With this annual retrospective, we look back at what did happen in 2020. We said goodbye to four giants: Emory University archivist and activist Pellom McDaniels III, 52, and artist-educator-curator David C. Driskell, 88, in April; painter-muralist-printmaker-illustrator Louis Delsarte, 75, in May; and collector Bill Arnett in September. Only Driskell’s death was linked to COVID-19.
“Pellom lived by the lessons learned as an athlete,” Navvab McDaniels said of her husband, who played in the NFL. “He was fearless, meticulous, never complained and finished whatever he started. He would work through pain, and saw criticism and failure as opportunities for growth.”
Driskell, who lived and died in Maryland, is the namesake of the High Museum’s Driskell Prize, the first national award to celebrate contributions to African American art and art history. He was among the most revered American artists of his generation, long recognized for his vibrant and versatile painting and printmaking practices. The High plans to open a Driskell retrospective on February 6.
“David was a lion,” said art historian Andrea Brownlee, who considered Driskell a mentor. “He helped define the field of African American art and art history. But beyond being a giant within those disciplines, he was a giant of humanity.”
Contemporary critics considered Delsarte a “Dream Weaver.” He lived on a commune in Arizona and painted tarot cards as an emerging artist. He was a master colorist who captured allegorical scenes in watercolors, acrylics, pastels and drawings. He was interested in documenting life, death, tragedy, happiness, sorrow and birth. He saw himself as a conduit for the ancestors — channeling their voices in compositions that were extravagant and anachronistic.
Delsarte was an associate professor at Morehouse College. During a 42-year career, he taught painting and drawing at Howard University, Morris Brown College (where he had tenure) and Spelman College. His paintings are in public collections at the High Museum, Hammonds House Museum and Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.
Arnett was a lifelong activist, patron and scholar best known for working on behalf of what he called Black “vernacular artists” from the South. This was work created largely by self-taught artists who were mostly ignored by major American museums. Arnett brought innumerable artists into the mainstream — Thornton Dial Sr., Lonnie Holley Sr., Charles Williams and the Gee’s Bend quilters, among them. He also founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in 2011, which has placed works by more than 100 artists in some of the country’s most esteemed museums and art collections.
Multimedia artist Yanique Norman and multidisciplinary artist Zipporah Camille Thompson were named the 2020 winners of the 2020 Atlanta Artadia Awards. This is the eighth year the Brooklyn-based nonprofit grantmaker and national community of visual artists, curators and patrons has presented Atlanta awards.
Norman and Thompson will each receive $10,000 in unrestricted funds from Artadia, which supports visual artists with merit-based awards announced each December, plus a lifetime of program opportunities.
After 19 years as director of the Spelman College Museum of Art, Andrea Brownlee left to become the director and CEO of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I was completely smitten by all the Cummer has to offer, what’s in store and the potential for growth,” Brownlee told ArtsATL. “I’m very excited about the museum’s assets — from the incredible staff to the incredible collection — and the city of Jacksonville itself. I also think about the amazing gardens on the St. Johns River and consider how important being outside has become to all of us. What a reprieve it is to be in nature. And I couldn’t turn down this exceptional opportunity that offers beauty both indoors and out.”
Spelman will name interim leaders and begin a national search for its next director.
It was a start and stop and start season for galleries and museums, each handling COVID closures in its own way. Still, 2020 brought us a handful of noteworthy shows — from neo-folk artist Benjamin Jones at MOCA GA and Whitespace; photographer Lucinda Bunnen at Switch Modern; Hindu deities at Emory University; Àsìkò, Paul S. Briggs and Okeeba Jubalo at September Gray Fine Art; and photographer Dawoud Bey at the High Museum.
Jones’ Speaking (a retrospective) at MOCA GA and Salt Island (new work) at Whitespace offered a homecoming of sorts for the longtime Atlantan who now lives on Tybee Island. The January-February shows were his first here in 11 years.
In her review, ArtsATL’s Deanna Sirlin said Jones’ drawings “are comparable to Picasso’s in their directness of line and approach to figuration.”
“It’s the teeth that get you,” she said. “Almost every figure shows its teeth, with every tooth articulated. These small pieces are made with graceful lines but disturbing ferocity. The smiles are false; the grin is also a terrifying snarl.”
Bunnen’s photographs — 48 of them — were hung amid the room-like displays of contemporary furniture and accessories of Switch Modern in Midtown. The photos in January’s From Nuns to Now represented nearly five decades of work and ranged from the meditative Hatcher’s Pond (2010) and Cuba-set Cigar Lady (2012) to Rooster (2016), shot in Cave Springs, Georgia. ArtsATL cofounder and reviewer Catherine Fox called it “an absorbing safari through the multifarious themes, approaches and subjects that characterize” Bunnen’s work.
January also brought Transcendent Dieties of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum. It featured the work of three artists and their depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses and the ancient narratives about them.
Indian artists Manjari Sharma, Abhishek Singh and Raja Ravi Varma were asking, “What does it mean to see and be seen by the divine? And what does it mean to see the divine in new ways?”
September Gray Fine Art laid bare Black narratives with the virtual exhibition Strange Fruit, featuring work by London-based Àsìkò, Boston-based Paul Briggs and Atlanta painter and mixed-media artist Okeeba Jubalo online October–December.
“Historically and contemporarily,” ArtsATL’s Shelley Danzy said in her review, “the Black narrative speaks loudly. There’s a powerful testament of humanity, erasure and loss throughout Strange Fruit.”
Since the 1970s, when photographer Dawoud Bey began his career, he’s used his camera to create meditations on visibility, race, place and American history with work that is both personal expression and an act of political responsibility. This is poignantly clear in the retrospective Dawoud Bey: An American Project, which opened at the High Museum in early November and continues through March 14.
From his early street portraits in Harlem to a recent series imagining an escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad, the Queens-born, Chicago-based Bey uses photography’s potential to reveal communities and stories that have been underrepresented or unseen.
“I consider myself to be making photographs both in conversation with the history of photography and also the history of Black representation within photography,” Bey says. “Because I’m African American, and because so few representations of African Americans are made from inside that experience, I set out to make that my space.”
Atlanta’s active street-art scene reached a milestone when Ashley Dopson’s #BlackLivesMatter piece became the city’s 1,000th mural. She painted it at Kipp Strive Academy in the Westview neighborhood, which helped prompt the creation of ATL1000, a partnership between Arthur Rudick’s Street Art Map website and the Cabbagetown Initiative.
Its goal is to promote Atlanta as an arts destination, to encourage community discussions about Atlanta’s street art and to give residents and visitors a safe, family-friendly, street-art experience where social distancing can be practiced. It sponsored its first mural, Dopson’s Fish Are Jumping and the Cotton Is High, in southeast Atlanta at Wylie Street and the Krog Street Tunnel.
Fish Are Jumping is just one of ATL1000’s tentacles. The others: Power Haus Creative’s three-mural Goddess Glow Project spotlighting Black women artists, and digital projections in the Downtown Arts & Entertainment District.
“A thousand murals in Atlanta is a huge accomplishment,” Rudick said, always shining the light on the the artists. “Our muralists deserve recognition.”
SOCIAL ACTIVISM THROUGH ART
“I SEE YOU. I HEAR YOU. I VALUE YOU. BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
“As I painted these words,” says Atlanta artist Alannah Vincent, “I thought about all the lives cut short. All the tears mothers have cried and all the families left behind. I went through mixed emotions of pain and anger to being hopeful.”
Beginning in June, Atlanta saw an explosion of murals demanding that #BlackLivesMatter and painted in response to the murders — at the hands of police — of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and so many others.
The murals encouraged togetherness and courage, and depicted protesters, chains, Black power, faces of many colors, clenched fists, a pierced heart and carried messages like “No Justice / No Peace.”
They popped up in nearly every corner of the city — downtown, Buckhead, East Atlanta Village, the Old Fourth Ward; along MLK Jr. Drive and Edgewood Avenue; in Summerhill, near the former Turner Field; and in southwest Atlanta.
In addition to Dopson and Vincent (@ashleydpaints and @alannahvincent on Instagram), the artfulness came from muralists George F. Baker III (@gfb3), ABV gallery’s Tommy Bronx (@tommybronx) and Ash Hayner (@wolfdoglives), Dustin Emory (@dustin.emory), EricNine Lopez (@eric_nine), Travis Love, (@travisloveart), Chris Veal (@caveal), Miami-based traveling artist Renda Writer (@rendawriter) and brothers who identify themselves only as @reclusebrown and @theconsciouscrab. There are, no doubt, many muralists who did — or are doing — similar work.
As Baker said: “Atlanta wasn’t where I was born. But it’s been the city that’s shaped me.”
Finally, in October, the Atlanta nonprofit Living Walls partnered with Atlanta Medical Center on a mural titled Stronger Together. It’s goal: to express support for health-care professionals elbow-deep in COVID-19. The mural is the work of Atlanta artist Sanithna Phansavanh and can be seen at Boulevard and East Avenue N.E., near the hospital’s emergency entrance.