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Whitfield Lovell: “Passage” Major National Tour Kicks Off in South Florida at the Boca Raton Museum of Art

Whitfield Lovell (American, b. 1959) Because I Wanna Fly, 2021 Conté on wood with attached found objects Diam: 114 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Art

The first stop on the national tour of the landmark exhibition “Whitfield Lovell: Passages” is in South Florida at the Boca Raton Museum of Art (February 15 – May 21) and will continue across six states throughout the American South and the Midwest. This is the largest exhibition ever presented of Lovell’s work that focuses on lost African American history and raises universal questions about America’s collective heritage. Organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) in collaboration with the artist, the exhibition is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Terra Foundation for American Art and encompasses the entire first floor galleries of the Boca Raton Museum of Art (7,500 square feet). This is the first time these multi-sensory installations by Lovell are presented together in a museum-wide show of this monumental size and scope.

“These installations create a profound immersive experience that enables visitors to become participants in, not just observers of, the experience of these ancestors who were lost to time,” said Pauline Forlenza, the director and CEO of American Federation of Arts. “Together, these works convey passages between bondage, freedom and socioeconomic independence, promoting a deeper connection with African American histories through art. An exhibition of this magnitude would not be possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Terra Foundation for American Art and the six museums selected for this tour.”

Lovell is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Genius Grant and is recognized as one of the world’s leading artistic interpreters of lost African American history. The internationally acclaimed artist is celebrated for his exquisitely hand-drawn portraits (many are life-sized), drawn with Conté crayons from historic photos he finds of anonymous individuals. Then, the artist combines his intuitive assemblage of time-worn objects to raise universal questions about memory, American life and reclaiming lost history that had been erased.

The works in this exhibition are anchored by images of everyday African Americans, from the 1860s to the 1950s (between the Emancipation Proclamation and the start of the Civil Rights Movement), a period of time the artist feels has been overlooked by the art world. “I see the so-called ‘anonymous’ people in these vintage photographs as being stand-ins for the ancestors I will never know,” said Whitfield Lovell. “I see history as being very much alive. One day, 100 years from now, people will be talking about us as history. The way I think about time is very different – I don’t think it really was very long ago that these things happened, it wasn’t that long ago that my grandmother’s grandmother was a slave.”

“The ancient Native American principles say it takes seven generations to overcome a tragedy, so in this context of generations we can begin to grasp why we are at this point we are living in now,” Lovell added. This passage of time, with its love, loss, despair, danger and freedom, comes to life via Lovell’s otherworldly, ghostly realms – demonstrating ongoing reverberations in our contemporary existence.

Works by Lovell are featured in the permanent collections of major museums, including: the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, DC; the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, DC; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA; the Yale University Art Gallery; the Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN; The Brooklyn Museum, NY; the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; Seattle Art Museum, WA and many others.

The accompanying catalog for this national tour, published by Rizzoli Electa, features groundbreaking scholarship and a fresh examination of Lovell’s work with essays by esteemed scholar Bridget R. Cooks and Cheryl Finley. “This is a milestone exhibition, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art is honored to be chosen as the first venue to premiere this national museum tour,” says Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “In our modern-day world, so feverishly focused on ever-decreasing attention spans, the depth of presence we experience when walking through Lovell’s immersive art reminds us that remembering the past is something that matters.” The national tour features important loans from several museums, including the recent acquisition by the Boca Raton Museum of Art of  Lovell’s artwork entitled “The Red XIII,” and loans from the Bronx Museum of the Arts; Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, Michigan and several private collectors. Several of the loans for this tour were facilitated, and some were directly loaned by New York’s DC Moore Gallery on behalf of the artist.

Investigating the Circularity of Life

Lovell’s interest in spirituality, healing and ritual, together with his use of reclaimed and found objects, aromas, music and sound, has long informed his practice which investigates the circularity of life. “There were not a lot of role models for me as a young Black man wanting to be an artist, a decision I made when I was very young at the age of 13,” said Lovell. “I didn’t have a lot of examples telling me that being an artist was something that I could do. When I came along in the art world, Black people didn’t have gallery representation – we made art because we felt strongly that we had to make art. We found a way to make art.”

Fast-forward to now, one of Oprah Winfrey’s most treasured artworks is Lovell’s tableau entitled “Having,” which she has kept in her office for decades (the wall-length charcoal image of two African American women features three vintage wood boxes filled with pennies, added by the artist). “These women were early entrepreneurs. I have looked at this every day from my desk for years, to remind me and inspire me that, yes, it can be done,” Oprah Winfrey told the Los Angeles Times about Lovell’s artwork.

Honoring the Memory of their Suffering and Perseverance

Lovell’s hand-drawing virtuosity is rare in today’s world of technologically aided artmaking. The meticulously physical back-and-forth process is how the artist honors the person’s memory and their existence: he applies the charcoal, rubs it with his fingers to get the right tone and then erases some to create the highlights.

“Drawing by hand is always a particular pleasure for me,” said Lovell. “Hand-drawing from the vintage photograph provokes the viewer to look more closely at the subject matter and to contemplate it more.”

By drawing these dignified portraits with grace and humanity, Lovell is honoring the memory of their suffering and perseverance. “The important thing is to make the art good, so that 100 years from now people would want to look at this work. As an artist, you have to find joy in the act of creating,” said Lovell.

Each realistic portrait is inspired by the antique photographs he finds in flea markets, discarded family albums, mug shots and archives. Lovell renders each portrait directly onto old wooden boards with knots, holes, nails, traces of paint and other signs of age. On working with these vintage wood panels, what someone might consider to be a flaw in the found object becomes truly part of the artwork itself. “I’m working with historical images, and the wood itself has history already. The wood comes from old homes, where old souls once inhabited – so I think allowing the wood to have character is very important,” Lovell said. The striations of the wood often come through onto the faces of the unnamed persons.

Lovell then adds found household objects such as clothing, dishes or other mementos onto the wooden panel itself, or on the floor near each portrait. Finally, Lovell chooses a title for the tableau using words or phrases with multiple possible, often contradictory, meanings. He also uses titles of songs, and often incorporates recorded music of early Blues tunes, traditional slave songs, spirituals and gospel music. These tableaux inspire viewers to imagine how each person lived a full life, richly filled with nuances.

“I have avoided making images of famous people, and instead I use found images of so-called ‘anonymous’ people, whose names we don’t know and whose lives we can’t know about because they were erased from history,” said Lovell. “At one time this person walked the earth, spoke and lived and dreamed, just as we are doing today. I look for the humanity that I can find from each of the nameless images I choose to work from.”