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Black Muse: Powerful African American art at Art Center Sarasota

Art Center Sarasota showcases powerful works by African-American artists.

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An African goddess, her robes blowing in an invisible breeze. A man surrendering with his hands up. The stylized mask of an exuberant, 21st century child. These are some of the images you’ll see at the “ASALH: Black Muse 2016” exhibition at Art Center Sarasota this Thursday, Jan. 28.

In recognition of Black History Month, this annual exhibit showcases works by member artists of the Manasota chapter of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH). The first show took place in 2002; Art Center Sarasota has hosted the exhibition since 2008.

This year’s exhibition will feature pieces in a range of media by Todd Berrien, Dr. Jacquelyn E. Dix, Major P. Gladdon, Robert Hayden, Barbara Mask, Jean McMurren, Eleanor Merritt, Myrna Morris, Michele Redwine, Carolyn Rice, Brenda Robinson, Ed Swan and Jane Thame. What are these artists trying to say in their work?

We asked, and they were happy to tell us.

Eleanor Merritt. Photo by Marty Fugate.
Eleanor Merritt. Photo by Marty Fugate.

Eleanor Merritt is an award-winning painter and a member of the Florida Artists Group and the Petticoat Painters. Her multi-media paintings in this exhibition include the ethereal visage of “Midnight Goddess,” the haunting faces of the “Ancestor Series” and the phalanx of warriors of “Totem Guardians.”

Stylistically, she’s equally fluent in the possibilities of acrylic, oils and watercolors and mixed-media art. Merritt creates in the two-dimensional space of a flat canvas, but she believes her best work can be four-dimensional.

“Art can open up a window in time,” she says. “My recent work incorporates African-American fabrics and layering and texturing patterns. It speaks of the heritage of the past, but it carries these traditions into the future. It’s a way of reclaiming our legacy and keeping it alive.”

Barbara Mask has submitted a single work: “Black Lives Matter.” This powerful, timely painting depicts a mournful, elderly black woman with a picture of a young black man under her arm.

“Hands Up” by Todd Berrien
“Hands Up” by Todd Berrien

“The rituals and ceremonies of my youth still resonate with me,” she says. “But sometimes I speak to what’s happening now. The news of the day can’t be ignored.”

According to Mask and the other artists we spoke with, talented African-American artists shouldn’t be ignored, either.

Merritt has a track record of fighting for underrepresented artists of all descriptions. She earned a Women’s Caucus for Art National President’s Award for a program she created to give recognition and exhibition space to women artists.

“African-American artists continue to be marginalized,” she says. “Year after year, ‘Black Muse’ brings their work to the forefront.”

Lisa Berger, Art Center Sarasota’s executive director, quietly affirms her commitment to this mission.

“We’re a community art center,” she says. “These African-American artists are part of our community. They truly deserve to be seen. Making sure they do is part of what we do.”


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