Beautiful. Breathtaking. Bold. Bright. These words describe the Black excellence displayed within The August Wilson African American Cultural Center’s (AWAACC) newest exhibition, “Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art.”
On display until the end of August, the collectors, Kerry and C. Betty Davis, have loaned from their private collection 67 works of art by revered and influential African American artists and photographers of the 20th century, including Romare Bearden, Beverly Buchanan, Elizabeth Catlett, Ernest T. Crichlow, Sam Gilliam, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Alma Thomas and Charles White.
After serving in the United States Air Force, Kerry Davis embarked on a career with the United States Postal Service as a letter carrier. He began collecting art when he purchased his first house in Atlanta. “I did not want a regular picture,” says Davis. “I wanted something that reflected my ethnicity.”
He does not see himself as an art collector, but rather someone who was purchasing art that resonated with him.
Growing up in Atlanta and living close to Clark-Atlanta University was pivotal in Davis’ collecting career. “I was able to see their collection as early as the 1940’s, ” says Davis. “Now, coming full circle, I had no idea that I could have an art collection that was respected and that is traveling the country.”
Betty Davis grew up with a similar love for art. She was born and raised in Philadelphia, and she fondly remembers field trips to museums while in school. And when Davis bought her first house, she also had a similar journey of collecting art to enhance her home.
Now the Davis’ help each other in understanding and educating themselves about art.
Many of the artists featured in the Davis’ collection will travel with their art. “When you look at this exhibition you’re looking at a relationship that I had with artists,” says Kerry.
Kevin Cole is one of the many artists the Davis’ have grown a relationship with over the years. Cole is from Pine Bluff, Arkansas and began creating art at a very early age.
His love for art is inspired by his mother. She would encourage Cole to make a picture of her every time he had a rough day at school. He would be bullied because of his speech impediment. From there, Cole fell in love with art.
Cole has many art pieces featured throughout the exhibit like his work titled When Blessings Meet Opportunity. He explains that this piece was inspired by when his grandfather took him to a tree where African Americans were lynched by their neckties on their way to vote. In the work When Blessings Meets Opportunity, there are three neckties which resemble the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“It is a wonderful opportunity just to come and see [the exhibit] and to be here,” says Cole. “This facility is incredible. To be a part of the Davis’ collection and what they are doing with sharing their thoughts and personal feelings with the world.”
“I encourage everyone to come to the show because there is something for everybody, ” he says.
Many people in attendance were moved by the artwork, including father-daughter artist duo, Njaimeh and Saihou Njie, who attended the opening reception.
“It is a beautiful collection and a great mix of mediums and eras in which artists were producing,” says Njaimeh. “It is nice to see some familiar names that are really renowned but also some names that might not be quite as well known in the art canon but their work is still very impactful.”
Njaimeh is a photographer and filmmaker documenting black life today but through the lens of the past using archival research and oral histories. A collection of her work titled “Flight Plans” will be showcased at the Carlow University art gallery until October 2023.
Njaimeh’s father, Saihou Njie, is a Batik artist, a medium that utilizes wax and dyes to make art on fabric, a method he learned from his mother.
“It shows the talent in our community,” says Saihou, while commenting on the artwork within the exhibit.
Njaimeh’s mother, Valerie Njie, also has an eye for art. “I see the passion, blood, sweat, and tears that they put into everything, ” she says. “It gives me a different perspective.”
Attendees Ruth and Damion Wilson both have a fond love towards art that portrays Black and African American experiences and stories.
“We can have our voices heard and express ourselves when usually in society we are suppressed and not given the opportunity to express ourselves,” says Ruth. “We are pressured to assimilate with the rest of America.”
“It is the freedom to express yourself fully without being boxed in by others’ ideas of what’s beautiful or what is good,” adds Damion.
The AWAACC showed an overwhelming amount of gratitude towards the Davis’ and those in attendance.
“It is an honor to have an exhibit with artists that are so renowned and have influenced other artists for generations, decades,” says Janis Burley Wilson, AWAACC President & CEO.
“Our mission is to be a home for storytelling and an exchange of ideas around arts and culture specific to African American people and the African diaspora and this is the perfect representation of fulfilling our mission,” says Wilson.
Tracey McCants Lewis, AWAACC board chair, also expressed her appreciation saying, “It really spoke to me when Mr. Davis felt like the pieces were coming home.”
“It really touched me. It touched my soul that the AWAACC can be home for this type of collection and work so that people in our city can see these pieces and our youth can come and experience and see art that is representative of them,” says Lewis. “It is an honor and privilege for us to do this for the city of Pittsburgh.”
When those within the City of Pittsburgh and beyond visit this exhibit, they will see more than artwork. They will see a story. A talented team through the AWAACC brought the exhibit’s story to life.
Kimberly Jacobs, Exhibition Manager & Assistant Curator, was welcomed to the AWAACC team in May 2023. She is new to the AWAACC but appreciating art and history comes naturally.
“The works felt familiar to me because of the history of the collection. It almost laid out like poetry” says Jacobs. “To think about August Wilson’s legacy as a playwright, poet, philosopher and his dedication to telling Black stories and Black life is what we see in African American art and is in this exhibit.”
The AWAACC will be the only African American culturally specific institution that will feature this collection. “For it to come here, feels like it’s come home,” says Davis.
The AWAACC is hosting an opportunity for both seasoned and aspiring writers to submit a piece of art inspired by the exhibition. To learn more information please visit their website.