BHM art exhibit shows range and beauty

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Black History Month is being celebrated at the West Orange Public Library with an art exhibit of installations, quilts and collages, on display until Feb. 29. Curated by Mansa Mussa, the show is called “Fertile Soil: Ancestors and Icons” and also features Mussa’s own work.

“You have people who have inspired me,” he said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the show’s reception on Feb. 15 about his own collage. “That’s what this whole show is about.”

Photos of Mussa’s parents and the route they drove from their old home in South Carolina to their new home in New Jersey are featured in his piece, as well as photos of prominent black Americans, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

“This is a celebration of Black History Month,” Mussa said. “I want people who see it to ask the artists about the work and the people featured in it. It’s not just a show about art; it’s about learning who the artists are and who the subjects are.”

Della Moses Walker’s piece features her father, John Moses, who served as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II. A photo of Walker’s father is collaged with his United States Army papers and several stamps featuring the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in the United States. Walker incorporates stamps into all of her work.

“It’s always a postage stamp, always from the first day of issue,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “I was the middle child, and, one summer when I was about 10, my father needed something for me to do so he gave me a stamp book.”

Walker has been collecting stamps ever since, and, after years of going to stamp shows, she can estimate the number of stamps she has only as “a lot.”

After he finished his military career, Walker’s father became an eighth-grade teacher in Newark. Her father didn’t always talk about his time as a pilot, but Walker said he brought the military home with him.

“He would address students like they were in the military,” she said. “His presence was serious. He was a man of order.”

Walker’s collage is one of several in the show that uses photographs. Antoinette Ellis-Williams’ piece “Still Walking” does as well. “Still Walking” features some of Ellis-Williams’ own photos, surrounding a reproduction of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts Ruby Bridges walking into a segregated, all-white school. Ellis-Williams also included images of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the piece.

“We see Ruby, but she’s surrounded by militia,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle at the reception about Rockwell’s painting. “We leave black girls by themselves — black girls in particular. So it’s iconic to have Harriet and Frederick as her gatekeepers. There’s a circular sense of history. She is important, but she’s also cared for.”

Ellis-Williams is a professor of women’s and gender studies at New Jersey City University and started making art only about four years ago, after taking a collage class Mussa was teaching. She combines photography and painting in digital art programs and manipulates them together.

Glendora Simonson, another artist featured in the show, works with fabric to make quilts. One of her pieces is a small quilt depicting an image of Marvin Gaye, taken from one of his album covers.

“I have a background in painting and drawing, so I combined them,” Simson said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “You get light and dark fabrics and then start to play with them. Then you start sewing.”

Simonson learned how to sew when she was a child, and, after learning how to fix her own clothes, she began making doll clothes. Eventually, she started using sewing as an art form rather than just for practical reasons.

“I’ve been painting with fabric,” she said.

Cheryl Willis-Hudson makes quilts, too, and the one she has on display here shows her family history. She took years of research into her family’s history in Virginia and sewed reproductions of letters and inscribed Bible pages into a quilt.

“It’s based on family roots and an attempt to put those together,” Willis-Hudson said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “In quilting you put together a lot of fabric and layers, and I was doing the same thing with my family.”

She was able to trace her family back to 1778. She used burlap on the quilt because it was the material used to pack cotton and tobacco, both prominent crops in Virginia at the time.

“They’re personal story quilts,” Willis-Hudson said. “I like to tell a story, and I do it with quilting.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic