Cummer Museum makes good on Jacksonville’s ‘Bold’ aspiration with ‘Revolve’ exhibition

Jacksonville likes to consider itself “the bold new city of the South.” Says so right there on the side of its cop cars – a dubious messenger through which to promote yourself.

In the 10 years I’ve lived in the area, I’ve found Jacksonville to be anything, but bold. It is, in fact, one of the most timid places I’ve ever found and I’ve lived and traveled all over the country. A lack of boldness and vision from Jacksonville’s politicians and business elites is why the city has been left in the dust over the past 30 years by other Southern cities which were once its equal: Charlotte, Nashville, St. Petersburg, Louisville, Oklahoma City.

When it comes to bold and dynamic cities in the South, I’ve lived in the most – Atlanta – and the least – Birmingham. Jacksonville lands much closer to the Birmingham end of that spectrum than the Atlanta end.

The place to find true boldness in Jacksonville beyond a half century of empty civic promise is at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Under the relatively new directorship of Andrea Barnwell Brownlee who took over in late 2020, the Cummer Museum has become a bold new museum for Jacksonville. An example for the city, state and nation of how a storied institution, steeped in blue-blooded traditions, can rise to the challenge of the divided, tormented times in which it exists and lead its community through conversations which will find it more humane, equitable and livable on the other side.

The latest example of the Cummer’s boldness under Brownlee’s directorship and Chief Curator Holly Kerris’ gallery-level execution can be seen during “Revolve: Spotlight on the Permanent Collection,” a provocative exhibition of works from the permanent collection in conversation with loans from contemporary artists.

Start with Amy Sherald’s exquisite Fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like (2014). The artwork beams from the wall. Refined, soft, nary a visible brushstroke; still, dignified against a mesmerizing Tiffany blue background.

A big, beautiful portrait from the woman who painted Michelle Obama’s official White House likeness. The same woman who painted Breonna Taylor’s portrait which appeared on the cover of “Vanity Fair.” I’ve seen that painting in person. I consider it the most important artwork of the 21st century.

Bringing an Amy Sherald portrait to Jacksonville is a major freaking deal for this city. I’m guessing thanks for securing this loan goes to Brownlee, who in 20 years running the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta came into the orbit of just about every important Black female contemporary artist working over that period.

Greater, however, than simply bringing a brilliant contemporary painting by a brilliant contemporary artist to a city which doesn’t experience either with casual regularity, what the picture says and how its hung deliver a greater impact.

Sherald’s painting hangs side-by-side with one of Gilbert Stuart’s famed George Washington (1803) portraits.

Equals.

Sherald’s young, anonymous, Black woman and the so-called “father of the country.”

As painted, Sherald’s subject exceeds Stuart’s. Sherald’s portrait is larger, more luminous, more colorful.

By hanging these portraits side-by-side, the Cummer Museum tells visitors that these two people are comparable.

In a city which is just now getting around to changing the name of its Robert E. Lee High School and other public spaces named after Confederates and slaveholders, like Washington – but not all of them – this makes for a bold pairing. Heck, the entire city is named after a despotic white nationalist; a butcher.

In a state which is trying to outlaw gay children and erase its history of racial violence from schools – a history which includes America’s first civil rights martyrs, race massacres, plural, more Ku Klux Klan activity and lynchings per capita than Mississippi or Alabama, the singular event of racial hostility which finally sparked passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, America’s most racist sheriff – placing an anonymous Black woman next to George Washington is bold.

The title of Sherald’s painting, Fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like, hung next to Washington, boldly confronts the conversation around Critical Race Theory. “She,” the Black, female subject of Sherald’s painting, “knew more about them,” slaveholding white men like Washington, “than she knew about herself,” structural racism diminishing her self-worth, “having never had the map to discover what she was like,” having never received a similar education about the value of Black people.

Of Black women.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” ― Carter G. Woodson, “The Mis-Education of the Negro”

Titus Kaphar, Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, (2016). Tar and oil on canvas (left).  Marie Victoire Lemoine, Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest, (1785). Oil on canvas 25 ⅝ x 21 ½ in. Purchased with funds from the Cummer Council.
Titus Kaphar, Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, (2016). Tar and oil on canvas (left). Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection, Kansas City. Copyright Titus Kaphar. Marie Victoire Lemoine, Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest, (1785). Oil on canvas 25 ⅝ x 21 ½ in. Purchased with funds from the Cummer Council.

Bold is Titus Kaphar’s Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar (2018) hanging on a wall behind the Washington portrait. Billy Lee was one of Washington’s slaves. Kaphar forwards the young slave, omitting Washington from his account, but reminding us that, in addition to “not being able to tell a lie,” Washington kept humans in bondage, busting up their families, denying them freedom, robbing them of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The face of Billy Lee is obscured by Kaphar, another of contemporary art’s shortlist big deal artists whose presence in these galleries would be a story by itself.

Titus Kaphar, Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, (2016). Tar and oil on canvas. Detail.
Titus Kaphar, Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, (2016). Tar and oil on canvas. Detail.

Astonishingly, a quote from Kaphar about the Cummer painting which accompanies Billy Lee appears on wall text interpreting the images. To art geeks like myself, bringing the work and thoughts of artists the caliber of Sherald and Kaphar to Jacksonville makes me feel connected, via the Cummer, to a wider art world and conversation.

Credit for this loan goes to Kerris who’d been working on securing it, and presenting this show, since long before Brownlee took over.

Thanks to Brownlee, Kerris and exhibitions like “Revolve,” Jacksonville is on the map. Not yet a destination, but there.

Zanele Muholi. Folk art from the American Folk Art Museum. Deborah Roberts.

In a compact exhibition featuring only about 25 objects, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens presents work from high powered Black artists showing Black faces and sharing Black stories. They are joined by artists from Korea, Morocco, Haiti, Vietnam and Iran. And Europe and America, too.

The exhibition also contains a local flavor, with maps contemporary and historic placing Florida into context as well as Jacksonville native Mildred Thompson’s showstopping Magnetic Fields positioned in pride of place, front a center.

A bold painting, from a bold artist, for a bold museum.

Hopefully the city follows their lead.

“Revolve: Spotlight on the Permanent Collection” can be seen through November 13, 2022.

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