Extensive San Francisco art exhibit explores Black culture, African Diaspora

‘Revelations: Art from the African American South’ on display at de Young Museum through April 1

As we emerge from February — Black History Month — many people have had their consciousness raised. For them, February may have been more of a “Black Awareness Month,” a time to delve beyond ‘what was’ and explore ‘what is.’

If you are that type, and want to keep your consciousness-ball rolling, be sure to venture to the west side of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park, to visit the de Young Museum. You’ll find an extraordinary collection on display entitled “Revelations: Art from the African American South.

This exhibit of sixty-two artworks by twenty-two artists, is on display now through April 1, 2018. The art is curated from several generations of twentieth-century Black artists born and based in the southern U. S..

The photographs, drawings, sculptures, quilts, and paintings are a window into the artists’ lives and emotions as they moved through their post-Jim Crow, Civil Rights Movement worlds. Many of the artists were influenced by narratives from post-Reconstruction kindred.

Much of the artwork is crafted from the most basic of materials, reclaimed from woods, farms and industrial environs. This “cast-off” style embraces the legacy of how the poor and oppressed eked-out some freedom of expression by creating something from nothing.

Most of the art stimulated my current “woke” state of mind, and inspired a range of thoughts and emotions — anger, sadness, frustration and more. I was reminded of the scourge of enslavement, and its affect on the psyche of the victims. The brutal, institutionalized, and terroristic racism and oppression that my people have endured since enslavement was palpable. While some of the art expresses despair and frustration, other pieces inspire hope and pride. The artistic connection between African and African American cultures is firmly established.

To me, one of the most powerful pieces was “The Slave Ship” by Thorton Dial, Jr.. The sculpture, created from scrap metal and other materials, illustrates the violence of the Middle Passage.

Another sculpture, “The Hanging Tree” by Joe Minter, is an abstract that evokes the horror of lynching, and mourns the thousands upon thousands of Black people murdered by crowds of White people in the American South.


The art was acquired from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit “dedicated to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting the work of contemporary African American artists from the American South.”

Founded in 2010, the Foundation has hundreds of works by scores of artists. The collection has become an important resource for students, scholars, and the public.

The origins of the foundation start in the mid-1980s. William S. Arnett, a White art historian and collector, began to collect the artworks of largely undiscovered African American artists across nine southeastern states. Arnett sponsored many of the artists, providing them cash retainers, stipends and other support. Arnett and his sons have spent more than thirty years accumulating art, documents and photos recording the legacy and culture of America’s contribution to the African Diaspora.

Arnett is the founder and chairman emeritus of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Finding the way to San Francisco

In 2014, the foundation began transferring a considerable number of works to permanent collections at universities and leading art museums in the U.S. and around the world. The groundbreaking acquisition by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is part of an institutional initiative to expand its offerings beyond the typical, to include “outsider art” as part of the ‘real’ American art dialogue. The purchase/gift agreement negotiated makes the art part of the FAMSF permanent collection.

FAMSF’s curator of American Art, Timothy Anglin Burgard, did substantial research on the collection in the run-up to the acquisition.

“While these compelling objects embody universal human values, they are also powerful testaments to African American cultural resilience and survival,” said Burgard in a post on ARTtalk.com. “Originally created as expressions of personal identity and communal solidarity in the South during the modern Civil Rights era, they will now serve as catalysts to transform global art history.”

Funds for the acquisition were supplemented by a host of notable Bay Area private donors, and community groups such as the San Francisco Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and the California Hawaii State NAACP.

Engaging local communities

Retired San Francisco journalist Belva Davis was instrumental in the fundraising process, and in recruiting “Community Representatives,” people who volunteer to serve as a docent-type resource, providing some background on the art, and helping exhibit visitors process the history and rawness of the works.

“Many of our volunteers grew up in the era of the Civil Rights Movement, or have personal connections to the American South,” said Tina Wiley, coordinator of Revelations Community Outreach at de Young Museum. “Their perspectives and experiences help visitors digest the information, reflect on the art, and build empathic connections to the exhibit.”

“So much of this exhibition is common information for adult Black Americans, but for young people and people from other ethnic groups, this history may be something they are learning for the first time.”

Many of the Community Representatives are members of The Links, and other Bay Area African American civic organizations.

Be sure to plan a visit to de Young Museum, soon! The exhibition is included with general museum admission. When you visit, stop by the bookstore and take home the exhibition catalogue, authored by Burgard. The hardcover, 184-page coffee table book is loaded with tons of background about the artists, and the exhibit.

TIP: If you are driving, do yourself a favor and pony-up for parking in the Music Concourse Garage, instead of burning away fossil fuel cruising for a free street parking spot. The visit could take one-to-three hours, depending on whether you decide to take-in the other exhibits.

ANOTHER TIP: Before leaving the museum, be sure to visit the Hamon Education Tower Observation Level for a breath-taking, 360 degree panoramic view of San Francisco (including the giant wall map!). The tower closes one hour prior (4:15) to the museum’s close, so check the time BEFORE you hit Revelations, so you won’t miss out!

Revelations: Art from the African American South: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through April 1, 2018. Admission: $6-$15. de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. [MAP] (415) 750–3600. http://deyoung.famsf.org