Although the connection between the DAI and the NAACP dates back more than a century, the two groups are collaborating on an art exhibition for the first time. The new Focus exhibit, “Reflections in Time,” features 16 paintings that celebrate Black history. It will be on display through Sept. 10.
“It’s an opportunity to celebrate African-American history, which is American history, and see some terrific art,” says DAI chief curator Jerry Smith. “These works are visually engaging, a fascinating use of color and have recognizable subject matter.” The subject matter ranges from baptism to football. There’s also a portrait of singer Nina Simone, an image of a nighttime revival meeting, and an oil painting of enslaved people working in the cotton fields.
One of the featured artists is Ernie Barnes, Jr., best known for “The Sugar Shack,” the painting which was the cover art for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 “I Want You” album and also used in the closing credits of the hit television series, “Good Times.” The painting sold for $15 million in 2022. “He has grown immensely in popularity and his work now sells for six, seven, even eight figures,” says Smith.
Barnes, who died in 2009, primarily focused on scenes of everyday life. The DAI exhibit has three of his works including “Pool Hall,” “Vision of Education,” (which pictures a young man in a rural setting envisioning an educated man in cap-and-gown) and “Football Players.” Barnes played football at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) while majoring in art and was selected in the NFL draft’s 8th round by the Washington Redskins, who withdrew their interest moments later when they learned he was Black. He eventually played for the New York Titans, the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. His teammates dubbed him “Big Rembrandt” because he sketched during games.
Well-known children’s book illustrator Frank Morrison is represented by three paintings. In one titled “3 Feet High and Rising,” you’ll see three young men walking past a storefront covered with graffiti. “My work dignifies the evolution of everyday, underrepresented people and places within the urban landscape,” Morrison has stated. “I seek to both highlight and preserve the soul of the city through the lens of hip-hop culture and urban iconography. I want people to experience the visual rhythms that choreograph life for the average, everyday person.”
Meet the curator
Foward had always dreamed of adding an arts committee to his organization and in 2022 appointed Elijah Rashaed as curator and chair of the arts committee. Rashaed, who grew up in Florida, has been involved with art since school days — as an artist, collector and art instructor. “I had a wonderful teacher who really taught a love of art and the way he taught it you knew he loved it,” he says. “My father and mother also loved art.”
Rashaed believes a lot of museums are missing the African-American presence — images of African-Americans as well as African- American artists. “We teamed up with Dayton Art Institute to bring awareness as well as some wonderful art and artists. The artwork reflects a variety of Black experiences told by the palette and brushes of artists.”
Rashaed traveled the country to seek out artists that “put their heart into their work” and who “capture an African-American point of view.” Although a majority are Black, it wasn’t a requirement. One of the most dramatic and colorful groupings in the show is a series of four oil paintings commissioned by the local NAACP and created by Southwestern artist Kim Wiggins, who is white.
Wiggins loves history and is known for paintings that reflect American history, primarily of the West. “My wife is Hispanic, so our children are half Hispanic and half white,” he says. “My passion is to try and portray different aspects of American history that have been overlooked.”
When his son came to him in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and asked what he’d done to help Black society in America, Wiggins hesitated. “Wow, that’s a good question,” he responded. “Not enough.”
So when he was contacted by Rashaed and asked if he had any interest in applying for an art commission that would reflect the African-American experience, he said he would like to do that. “You realize I am a white artist,” Wiggins said. “I just want to be up front about that.”
“Elijah started laughing and said he didn’t care what color I was, whether I was red or green or purple,” remembers Wiggins. “He said he was interested in the power and strength and passion of my work. He said if it were the 1940s or 1950s, he would have called Norman Rockwell.”
Wiggins was selected for the commission in 2021. “We had originally talked about one painting but decided to do four different pieces.” he explains. “Elijah wanted the work to be a celebration of life that would speak to people’s hearts.”
The vibrant artwork that resulted is a highlight of the DAI show. One painting shows laborers in the cotton fields prior to the War Between the States. Another depicts the aftermath of a massive hurricane and also relates to a massive flood. “Those were very horrible times for many African-Americans and the government did nothing to help the people,” Wiggins says. “We also wanted to show the influence of religion and music and celebrate Black entrepreneurs and great businesses that were created.”
Wiggins says his work always has child audiences in mind. “I try to speak to the younger generation of people,” he explains. “They are on their phones every day flipping through images. Every once in a while a powerful image will come up and they will stop and take it in. I’m constantly watching children to see what their response is to my work. Children have not been biased by society. They are so honest and open and innocent.”
Often he hides images in his work that he hopes children will discover: various animals, birds, flowers, children.
Visiting the exhibit
Thirteen members of The Presidents Club of Dayton toured the new exhibit recently and were awed by what they saw.
“Oh my gosh, it was phenomenal!” said the organization’s president Veronica Bedell-Nevels, who says one of her favorite pieces in the exhibit was Annie Lee’s inspirational painting “Holy Ghost.”
“My phone rang off the hook after we left and they gave me a standing ovation to let me know how much they enjoyed their day,” Bedell-Nevels said. “It was an impressive display of the richness of the African-American experience, a testament to the human spirit, creativity and ingenuity.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Reflections in Time.” The Dayton Unit of the NAACP Celebrates History.”
Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton
When: Through Sept. 10. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Admission: $15 for adults; $10 for active military and groups of 10 or more; $5 for college students and youth, free for children ages 6 and younger. Free admission tickets when available can also be checked out at Dayton Metro Libraries.
For more information: daytonartinstitute.org or call 937-223-4278.
NOTE: A goal of the current show is to raise money for the NAACP’s Youth Education Fund for college scholarships. You’ll find a QR code on the title wall and also on the rack card which will allow visitors to make a donation.
DAYTON UNIT NAACP RECEPTION: There will be a reception with representatives from the Dayton Unit NAACP at the DAI to greet guests and answer questions from 1– 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12. This will include the curator of the art for the exhibition, Elijah Rashaed, as well as Derrick L. Foward, president, Dayton Unit NAACP. Paid museum admission is required to attend the reception.