At Our Fingertips: Driskell Center’s art exhibits let students get in touch with African culture

By Tisha Claudia Lim

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It is unlikely that University of Maryland students would associate the Cole Field House with the word “artistic.”

Despite being established 12 years ago, many do not know that there is a cultural and historical “hidden gem” in the home of the university’s basketball teams.

The hidden gem is Driskell Center, a place that serves to study about visual arts and the culture of African Americans as well as African diaspora at the University of Maryland.

The center is a corner in preserving rich heritage of African American art. Its collection of articles, correspondences and ephemera provides a vital resource to understand the history behind African American and African diaspora art.

The center was named and honored after David C. Driskell, the renowned artist and collector of art, who is also a major figure in the African American art in America.

Driskell joined the University of Maryland’s art department in 1977 and subsequently served as its chair for five years. He retired in 1998 as a distinguished university professor emeritus of art.

Driskell has been practicing art since his 20s, and his works have been displayed in museums around the world. He had received the National Humanities Medal and was elected as a National Academician by the National Academy.

The public is able to access the Driskell’s archive online via the center’s “PastPerfect” database. The archive contains material about the professor as well as unique items needed to gain a holistic understanding of African American art.

The center has its own exhibition too, which is currently displaying Alison Saar’s “Still,” a collection of her eleven sculptures.

Saar, a contemporary female black artist, specializes and explores the theme of spirituality and African diaspora.

Her works are deeply connected to her multiracial background. Through her heritage, she captures the essence of human spirit.

Just by looking at her sculptures, people are able to sense the intensity of people underlying the civility of everyday life.

Saar portrays the historical burdens of women and people of color through visual and kinesthetic tension. 

She uses her sculptures to tell stories about women and the people of color, according to Dorit Yaron, the deputy director of the Center.

For example, one of her more powerful pieces, “En pointe,” depicts a hybrid deerwoman’s struggle as she moves one state to another. Her struggle between civilization and wilderness, between fertility and barrenness, between legacy and potential, according to text in the exhibition.

The name of Saar’s piece refers to a style of ballet danced on the tip of a toe, and it requires strength from the dancer, however, it is damaging to the dancer’s feet in the long run. With En pointe, she successfully tied the burden of women from the perspective of a deerwoman.

Her “Rouse” shows a light-skinned woman “attached to a massive nest  growing from a sturdy woman figure…as if she is coming out from a state of hibernation.”

The audience is able to understand the meaning behind Rouse, which is the transformation of a woman, through Saar’s lens.

In addition to Saar’s sculptures, the center also presented the “Sculpture Today and Sculpture Tomorrow” panel discussion on Oct. 10.

The discussion focused on the context of Saar’s sculptures; the five invited panelists talked and discussed about contemporary art issues from their point of view.

The discussion served as the first event of “The Arts in Public Discourse at the David C. Driskell Center,” which seeks to engage in dialogue about art practices and the human interactions with them.

When asked about the roles of artists and educators in transforming the sculptures, Mike Shaffer, one of the panelists and the president of the Washington Sculptures Group, said the role of the facilitator is to facilitate directions and capabilities to enable all sculptors to act. He added that educators should be willing to teach and communicate with people who are just starting up in the world.

“As an educator, I think my role is to open up students’ mind to make sculptures,” according to Foon Sham, one of the panelists and a UMD art professor.

Anyone interested in the center or  Saar’s sculptures is welcomed to visit 1214 Cole Student Activities Building, Monday through Friday 11 am to 4 pm or visit www.driskellcenter.umd.edu. The gallery is located at the entrance of the center and is separated from the main office, which is further down the hallway.

NOTE: Article updated November 21, 2013 and November 26, 2013 for slight style errors.

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