The works of art in Peabody Essex Museum’s new exhibit, “In Conversation: Modern African American Art,” have a lot to say.
Each of the 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs, which were created between the 1920s and the 1990s by 43 artists, tells a unique story about the human experience.
But when grouped together in three galleries at the Salem museum, where connections between the works become apparent, their stories develop into overlapping dialogues about race, art and American culture and history.
“The show is organized as evocative, visual conversations,” said Lynda Hartigan, the James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes chief curator at the museum. “As if the works are calling and responding to one another as intimate and even urgent, urgent images of identity, interaction and change.”
Hartigan developed an intimate bond with these works, which she referred to as “old friends,” when she selected many of them for the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she worked from 1983 to 2003.
“We can have really wonderful conversations about some of the challenges of building a national collection, at a time when many museums in this country simply did not want to think about including the work of African-American artists,” she said.
The period these works are drawn from includes not only some of the most important artistic movements, but milestones in African-American history, from the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration from the South to the North to the civil rights movement.
If some museums have resisted showing African-American art, at Peabody Essex Museum, there is a “love for doing things differently,” Hartigan said.
For this show, that has meant including unique features in the galleries to facilitate conversations, among visitors and between people and paintings.
Curators’ comments are printed in binders, along with reproductions of the images, in racks on the wall. Less cumbersome than catalogs, and less distracting than texts mounted on the wall, they are a handy way to hear what others think before moving on to the next gallery.
In another conversation starter, gallery walls are inscribed with groups of quotations from African-American writers and intellectuals, on themes addressed by the show.
“My first line in my class and the last line 12 months later is if there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black,” wrote Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
It’s a notion that echoes from the many portraits of individual African-Americans in this show, each unique in their character and situation.
“Soundscapes” are also incorporated into the show at several spots, projecting commentary, music or atmospheric sounds into the gallery.
Near a photo of “Ali Jumping Rope” by Gordon Parks, for example, visitors can hear part of a broadcast from Muhammad Ali’s early bout with Sonny Liston, followed by the sound of his jump rope slapping the floor as he trained, then answers he gave in an interview on topics of race and religion. It reminds us that we were almost as accustomed to hearing Ali, whether he was reciting poetry or taunting opponents and broadcasters, as we were to seeing him box.
Whether we connect what we hear to Parks’ photograph or to our own memories of The Greatest of All Time, as Ali called himself, our ears create a new “image” in which Ali the fighter and Ali the orator are united by patterns of sound.
Hartigan alluded to such connections throughout the exhibit, as images “calling and responding” to each other. Call and response is a structure shared by blues, jazz and other musical forms with African roots, in which themes are shared by solo performers and a group or chorus.
It’s a notion that helps viewers appreciate the unique way images complement and amplify each other in this show, as they address topics of family, work, spirituality and individual identity.
Benny Andrew’s painting “The Long Rows,” for example, one of several images of farm work, depicts someone facing away from the viewer, bent over so the bottom, legs and back — and the back of one arm — are all we see. The painting depicts how “stoop work” gets its name, as a type of field work that forces people to bend at the waist, reducing this farmer to an anonymous servant of the hoe he or she is using. Nevertheless, we get a sense of the farmer’s durability, and as viewers, focused down the row, we cannot help but follow and sympathize with the farmer.
It is difficult not to think of this painting when looking at the photograph “Horse-drawn Cultivator, Mississippi, 1974” by Roland Freeman, in which the handles of a plowlike device fork into the sky above a muddy field. Taking the same furrow’s-eye view as “Long Rows,” the photograph also draws us into the world of farm work. But the horse that pulls this cultivator and the man who controls it are absent, elevating the tool into a monument to the energy, focus and determination that makes it work.
The dialogue between these works is one small example of an enormous number of details that start to resonate and resound in the galleries, until the viewer cannot help but feel part of the conversation.
“I believe these works are also calling to us,” Hartigan said, “inviting us to poignant and challenging conversations about the dynamics of difference, our shared humanity, and how the art of image-making has the power to influence how we think, how we talk, how we view one another.”
Tannery Series in Salem
Newburyport’s literary organization, The Tannery Series, will present “IndiVisible: We the People in Black, White and Gray” at the Peabody Essex Museum from 6:30 to 9:30 tonight.
Authors Jerald Walker and Tisa Bryant will read from their work and talk about the visible and invisible power of race and privilege in 21st-century American art and culture.
The evening will also feature soul and jazz music from Diggs Duke, food, a cash bar, dancing, and the chance to tour the “In Conversation” exhibit.
Admission is $10. No reservations are required.
IF YOU GO
What: “In Conversation: Modern African American Art”
Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem
When: Through Sept. 2. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the third Thursday of every month, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Admission: $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $11 for students, and free for members and youths 16 and under
More information: 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org