A SLICE OF TIME • Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists: 1945 Through the Black Arts Movement

Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum Displays Critical Works from 1945-1972

    icon Feb 03, 2022
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With their powerful new exhibition titled Harold Neal & Detroit African American Artists: 1945 Through the Black Arts Movement, the Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum out at Saginaw Valley State University has assembled an impressive array of ten definitive black Michigan artists who re-connected their cultural heritage with the realities that coalesced to give purpose and meaning to the Civil Rights Movement that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

On display from February 1st through April 16th, Harold Neal - who passed away in 1996 - began drawing at an early age.  His mother’s compliments encouraged and fueled his desire to become an illustrator. He said, “you keep doing what gets you compliments from adults.”

He attended Booker T. Washington High School where he was proactive in arts and organized an art club. Neal participated at LeMoyne College Art Center founded by the New Deal Federal Art Project; it operated from 1938-41 and was directed by Verles Hayes, an African American Mural artist. Hayes’s murals often depicted themes of African American history which exposed Neal to Black history, not a subject taught in schools. One thing he became aware of was the federal support for the arts. After his father died in 1941, Neal left school and joined the army to support the family. He served in the Army Air Force as a technical Sergeant in Radio Air Communications between 1942 and 1946. While in the Air Force “he gained a reputation as a muralist.” (1964, Michigan Chronicle)

As part of the great migration of Blacks from the south after WWII, Neal moved to Detroit in 1947 to live with a relative. He thrived on low paying positions as an African American, later becoming a union worker. In 1952 he took a position with Michigan Bell and slowly worked his way up the chain to a position in community relations. He often faced prejudice attitudes from white customers. Later in 1977 he had a stroke and left Michigan Bell to pursue his art work.

In the early 1950s he was surveilled by the FBI for his connection to the labor movement. He was asked to denounce the Communist Party members and refused. This affected his ability to find work until he took the Loyalty Oath in the mid 1950s. After 3 interviews with the FBI they concluded that he was not a threat to the US.

Neal pursued his art career on the GI Bill by taking classes at Meinzinger Foundation Art School. He left there later to enroll at the Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC) in 1948 and graduated in 1953. Many Black students enrolled at SAC because they were welcomed by director Sarkis Sarkisian to study there. Other students Neal studied with at SAC included Ernest Hardman (1912-1969), Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999), Henri Umbaji King (1923-2004), Glanton Dowdell (1923/24-2000), Charles McGee (1924-2021), Charles Enoch, Jr., Curtis McNair, LeRoy Foster (1925-1993), and Oliver LaGrone (1906-1995). Over the years Neal associated with these artists.

In the 1980s Neal stated “The more things change the more they stay the same. I don’t have time to be angry anymore. If you make me always direct my energy toward getting your foot off my neck, then you are oppressing me…But I can’t carry the burdens of oppression on my shoulders my whole life.”

At this time his work becomes more abstract and at times non-objective,  although they still addressed African American themes. He did continue sill doing figurative subjects and themes of jazz. In 1994 a grant application by Neal stated that he was working on a series of twelve mixed media paintings that refer to original jazz compositions by Detroit-based musicians matched to each musician’s astrological sign.

Neal passed away in 1996. He along with the artists represented in this exhibition successfully promoted African American life and culture and the Black Arts Movement.

Other artists represented in this exhibition include  LeRoy Foster (1925-1993), Glanton Dowdell (1924-2000) Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999), Oliver LaGrone (1906-1995), and Charles McGee (1924-2021) who’s later work developed a more painterly style like de Kooning and a highly abstract style which featured fractured forms of Picasso and biomorphic shapes of Miro. In the 1970s, his work became assemblages using architectural elements from African American neighborhoods cleared for highways.

Evolution of the Detroit Black Arts Movement

In February of 1964, African American poet Langston Hughes arrived in Detroit to launch Negro History Week. While in Detroit he helped raise funds to create an African gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts. While Hughes was being honored in Detroit he met with very prominent people and visited the gallery of Contemporary Studio, a Black artists’ group that had 35 members in 1960.

Harold Neal was one of the members as well as other artists represented in this exhibition. Many members of this gallery had served in the armed services and were part of the great Migration. From 1945 to 1980, Detroit African American art took place in the context of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. And in Detroit it had a large presence, as the population of African Americans was 45% in 1970. So, Detroit became a “Midwest hub for the Black Arts Movement” in the 1960s, according to Howard University professor Melanee Harvey.

Many African American Artists created work in Detroit both before and after World War II.  In many cases many of them were not represented and left out of the growing history of African American art.  In the 1960s we see a split between Black Arts Movement artists and Black artists working in non-objective or highly abstracted styles. The Black Art Movement artists’ aesthetic were paintings mostly by street artists and they depicted people in the struggle, people in chains, slaves, romantic pictures of Africa. Works of this type stressed propaganda for the Civil Rights Movement.

Many Detroit African American artists studied at the Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC), now the College for Creative Studies. In the past and today, Museum exhibitions of Detroit artists lacked African American artist representation. In addition, few works by Detroit’s Black artists have gone into public collections, with the exception of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

This exhibition focuses on Harold Neal and ten of his predecessors. Contemporaries and successors left out a lot of other Black artists, most notably those associated with the Pen and Palette Club, which was active between 1926 and 1950 and the Arts Extended Group, which was largely made up of art teachers.

Artist Jon Onye Lockard (1932-2015) became involved with Black Nationalists in the mid 1960s. He felt fine arts can be produced for the masses and he devoted his energy to this thought. His style was realistic, and he said his art should be readable by laymen as well as art connoisseurs. He created inexpensive reproductions of his work which made it affordable to a wide audience. . In 1970 he founded the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. He taught over 40 years at these institutions. He was heavily invested in the heritage of Black Americans and created murals on this topic. In 2010, he had a retrospective exhibition at the University of Michigan called Africentricity. He also served as an art advisor for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.

Also represented is Henri Umbaji King (1923-2004) who founded the Contemporary Studio with Charles McGee, Ernest Hardman and Harold Neal in 1958, serving as director for 2 years and was a driving force of this gallery. In 1960 he became very active in radical politics in Detroit. Along with other artists, he founded the Malcolm X Society, a semi-secret organization which led to the Republic of New Afrika.

Other notable featured artists include:

Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts (1941-   )   Right before he left California in 1967 to return to Detroit, Pitts  joined the Black Panthers. Back in Detroit he worked at Chrysler and became a member of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Later the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in which he designed newsletters and posters. From 1968-1976 he edited, published and contributed to Black Graphics International (BGI), a revolutionary journal which featured art by radical Black artists. In 1966 his work was included in a traveling exhibition in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe sponsored by Institute of Soviet-American Relations, per his resume.

Allie McGhee (1941-  ). McGhee was influenced by urban violence and the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. At the time, his work addressed contemporary violence referring to the Vietnam War and African American uprisings. Along with Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts’s friendship he met Charles McGee and Harold Neal in the early 1960s and they had nearby studios. He also showed in McGee’s Gallery 7 plus taught at Charles McGee School of Art.

Shirley Woodson (1936-  ) Woodson was born in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1936. When she was 3 months old her family moved to Detroit. In the late 1960s Woodson created 25 collages included in an exhibition with poetry texts by Dudley Randall. Randall founded Broadside Press which became a major force in the Black Arts Movement according to his biographer Melba Joyce Boyd. Randall and Woodson worked together illustrating book covers and broadsides for the press.

According to Andrea Ondish, Curator of Education at the Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Gallery, what distinguished Neal and the other Detroit Black Arts Movement pioneers was their painting technique, which when combined with the philosophy behind their work, forged a place and gave purpose to a collective body of work that up until then had largely been forgotten.

“Harold Neal painted with a specific pointed technique involving layering and transparency,” explains Andrea. “Back in my time when I started school a lot of books focused upon that same style. Neal was mentored at the College for Creative Studies by Sarkis Sarkisian, who was a powerful advocate of this artist style, which a lot of artists emulated.  The ten artists that we are featuring in this exhibition are contemporaries that Neal knew, whose studios were close to on another. They would all get together in the 1950s, 60s & 70s working mainly in oils and you can see the transparency in his work. It’s like looking at something that should be solid, but you are able to see through it  or see things layered upon it, which gives all these artists work a special cohesion.”

“What’s interesting about the Black Arts Movement is the powerful imagery used to express things going on at the time of the Civil Rights Movement,” she continues. “Many of these artists were born in the early 1900s and there was no black history or nothing about their artistic heritage that was taught in schools, so they taught each other and studied their culture, sometimes taking African names.  These artists learned from each other and the imagery they produced is imagery that speaks of their heritage and culture, which all these works from the Black Arts Movement demonstrate.”

Perhaps most interesting are the ideals that the Black Arts Movement adopted.

 “All these artists believed their works should be about the black African American experience and specifically addressed to black audiences and not elite audiences without, nor with regard to how it was received by the white art world,” states Andrea. “They believed their work had to be accessible and comprehensible and so they rejected non-objective art, which was all about color and light, because its subject matter was often unrecognizable and therefore no acceptable because it had no relevance to the black experience.  These are key elements about this movement that are very important, which you can see within the works on display here at this exhibition.”

When Andrea looks at the body of work created out of this movement, where does she feel it falls with the lexicon of the contemporary art world? 

“There is a considerable body of black African American art that predates these pieces, but much of it was not documented because these works were not in the mainstream,” reflects Andrea. “Neal, McGee, and many of these artists were creating art in Detroit before World War II, but were left out of the growing history of African American art in the 1960s. Because Charles McGee had a gallery where they could show these works; in many ways this represents the first time creations by black artists were actually documented.”

“It’s sad nobody collected these works prior this movement, because many of them would get devalued and if you go to antique and estate sales many times you can find pieces of old original African American art and get really good deals,” she notes. “They would share their beliefs, philosophies, and thoughts, which came out in their artwork, so these artists were making history in an important way with remarkable success.  Many of these works are half a century old, yet still powerful today, which is quite amazing.”

Jon Lockard is an interesting artist out of the Ann Arbor area who taught at the University of Michigan,” cites Andrea. “He did a work of a Black Messiah that he sold and mass produced as reproductions and many of those were purchased and could be seen at the time.  One of our faculty members studied with him and he was a powerful force with the black artists.”

Additionally, on Saturday, March 26th from noon until 2 PM a panel presentation will be held at the Gallery, discussing the impact of this exhibition upon the Black Arts Movement.  The exhibition will have  around 30 works on display, including paintings, some sculptures, and graphics works with pen and ink.

“I sincerely urge people to view this exhibition,” concludes Andrea.  That layering style I referenced earlier cannot be picked up in a photograph, so you have to see the real art to appreciate it.”

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