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African-American art scholar to talk on new MFA exhibit


Times Art Critic

The largest exhibition of African-American art it has ever presented opens Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and one of the leading scholars of African-American art will deliver a talk about it on Sunday.

Deborah Willis, curator of "Mixing Metaphors: The Aesthetic, the Social and the Political in African-American Art from the Bank of America Collection" will be at the museum on Sunday for a talk about the show.

Willis, 65, is a creative force of protean energy. She is an artist and photographer with multiple degrees including a doctorate; the chair of photography and imaging at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University; a prolific independent curator; and author and co-author of 26 books. Oh, and among numerous awards is the MacArthur, commonly known as "the genius grant," which she received in 2000.

"I think of family life as a storytelling life," she said in a recent telephone interview. "I grew up in Philadelphia. My mother had a beauty shop and my father was a policeman but he also had a tailoring shop. People were transformed by images of beauty in those shops."

She became interested in art, especially photography as an art form, at an early age. Much of her work as a photographer and scholar has been linked to those early memories of family life and the beauty she found in it.

"But there were no African-American artists in my history books," she said. "So I have spent the last 30 years writing about African-American photographers."

She was invited by Bank of America, which owns a vast art collection including hundreds of works by African-American artists, to curate a show. She has chosen 90 paintings, prints, drawing, photographs and sculptures that she says tell a story of "making art with social and political implications and the metaphor of making art through political and social experiences." Among the 36 artists represented are Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Martin Puryear, Sam Gilliam, Benny Andrews and John Biggers.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.

If You Go

Deborah Willis will speak on "Reading Art as a Metaphor" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE, at 3 p.m. Sunday. The lecture is free with museum admission. or (727) 896-2667.

African-American art scholar to talk on new MFA exhibit 09/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 4:44pm]
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