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Thursday, March 23, 2023
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Celebrate Black History Month through local art

Three stunning WNY art exhibitions highlight Black artists this month

The Burchfield Penney’s gallery walls are lined with Johnson’s vibrant, colorful pieces.
The Burchfield Penney’s gallery walls are lined with Johnson’s vibrant, colorful pieces.

Celebrate Black History Month this February with local art exhibitions that highlight the contributions of Black visual artists. These three diverse exhibitions in Western New York bring Black art to the forefront:

LEROI: Living in Color

This exhibition at the Burchfield Penney Art Center is the first-ever major retrospective of LeRoi Johnson, known eponymously as simply “LeRoi.” “LEROI: Living in Color” is a survey of the Buffalo-based artist’s career, featuring a host of his distinctly vibrant paintings.

Johnson’s works are filled with intense color and energy, drawing from surrealism and abstract expressionism as well as African, Caribbean and South American cultural influences. He calls this style “electric primitive.”

“The word ‘electric’ refers to both modern and colorful [elements], but it also means to shine light on a topic,” Johnson said. “In a sometimes subtle way, my work touches and shines light on contemporary themes. At other times I forgo subtleness [to] attack intellectual curiosity.”

His use of the word “primitive” refers to the “untrained intertwining” of natural, ancient artistic elements. 

The exhibition, which is divided by periods of Johnson’s career, shows the thematic and stylistic breadth of the artist’s work. In the “Black Lives Matter” portion of the exhibition, Johnson examines institutional racism with emotional pieces like “Welcome to America” and “Evolution of American History.” 

The “identity and relationships” section includes several bright, joyous portraits — most notably the piece “Rick James Superstar,” a portrait of his brother, the legendary musician and Buffalo icon. 

Parts of the exhibition also showcase different artistic periods of Johnson’s career, like his “Brazil period,” which features work inspired by Afro-Brazilian culture. These works feature high-contrast, streamlined figures and animals like cats and alligators, all doused in bright primary color.

Johnson calls himself a “proponent of primary colors,” though the vibrancy of his work is not a conscious effort.

“Many people describe my work as colorful. This is something that I don’t see or have a sense of when I’m producing something,” Johnson explained. “Color and the use of color is something that is very natural for me.”

“LEROI: Living in Color” is on view until Mar. 26. Admission to the Burchfield Penney Art Center is $5 for students.

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12th Annual Artists of Color Exhibition

For the 12th year in a row, the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center presents the Artists of Color Exhibition to highlight Black artists local to the Niagara area.

In partnership with the Black Pioneers of Niagara Falls, the exhibition illuminates the artistic contributions of historical and contemporary Black artists in Western New York. 

The exhibition pairs antique photos of Black individuals from the 1920s with contemporary works of art by practicing artists of color to create a unique historical dialogue.

A press release for the show defined it as “a representation of the African American experience from a contemporary and personal perspective.”

The exhibition spans media, time period and subject matter, with everything from painting to photography to sculpture represented in the gallery. 

The exhibition was curated by Ray Robertson, the gallery’s co-director and an artist in his own right. Robertson hopes the show will be a “unique and enlightening experience” for visitors. 

Visitors to the gallery will also have access to “Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad,” a historical exhibition about the history of the Underground Railroad in the Buffalo Niagara Region.

The exhibition runs through Mar. 25, and admission is free.

George Afedzi Hughes: Identity, Power, and Reconciliation

George Afedzi Hughes, a painting professor at UB and internationally-exhibited artist, debuted his solo exhibition, “George Afedzi Hughes: Identity, Power, and Reconciliation,” at Buffalo Arts Studio last month. 

The exhibition is part of “Displacement: Reclaiming, Place, Space and Memory,” a community education series that seeks to foster conversation about intersectionality and justice through art. 

The Ghana-born painter’s work “explore[s] shared narratives that cut across racial differences and highlight the connection of contemporary global conflicts to colonial history,” according to curator Shirley Verrico. 

Hughes’ paintings have a collage-like quality to them, incorporating abstract and realist elements into surreal visual montages. 

The paintings deal with global conflict, politics and identity. Hughes infuses these heavy topics with a great deal of humor, and grounds his work in both contemporary cultural references and personal experiences.

“My works are shared narratives,” Hughes explained during an artist talk at the exhibition’s opening reception. “[I use] ideas that are kind of etched in history. I use humor and metaphor and combine these visual ideas in ways that address the nuance of racial reconciliation.”

The combination of the personal and the political is central to the work in Hughes’ exhibition. 

Hughes, a former athlete himself, incorporates sports imagery into a lot of his work. “Tactics” features an athlete in cleats lying facedown on a field, his face censored, as a bald eagle flies over his body. In the background of the piece are several barcodes, a reference to Hughes’ first few years in the U.S. where he worked in a warehouse, driving a forklift and scanning barcodes. 

“We need to reconcile our personal histories, our memories and our culture,” Hughes said in his artist talk. “You have to continue to contribute to society despite obstacles.”

The exhibition is on view until Mar. 1. Admission is free.

Meret Kelsey is the senior arts editor and can be reached at meret.kelsey@ubspectrum.com


MERET KELSEY

Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.

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