Amy Sherald's "Wellfare Queen." 2012, 54 by 43 inches, oil on canvas. Collection of Dr. Imani Perry, courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery.

The New York Herald writer who said in an article in 1867 that African Americans could not produce art was ignorant of the work of such talents as Edward Bannister, Robert Scott Duncanson, Charles Ethan Porter or Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Even today, African-American artists are underrepresented in the collections of major American museums: An analysis by artnet news published in September found that museum acquisitions of African-American art is less than 3 percent of total purchases. Decades after Bannister, who, fired up over the Herald article, won a spot in an important Philadelphia exhibition, there were museums that still turned blacks away at the door. (Philadelphia exhibitors almost removed the Bannister work when they discovered he was black.)


UA Little Rock is, once again, proving the folly of ignoring African-American art, with the exhibition “On Their Own Terms,” which opened Jan. 17 at UA Little Rock’s Windgate Center of Art and Design.

UA Little Rock gallery director Brad Cushman pulled together 50 works by some of America’s finest black artists — including Bannister, Duncanson, Porter and Tanner — for a show that celebrates the work of fine artists who share an affinity born of life experience.


“On Their Own Terms” is not an investigation into whether there is such a thing as “black art.” That’s a question for philosophers. Black culture and racism is, understandably, central to these modern and contemporary works, as issues of social justice have always found expression in art.

Cushman created “On Their Own Terms” with work from 13 collections, both public and private. The Arkansas Arts Center contributed 16 works, including a graphite work of a drawn and beleaguered woman by the great Elizabeth Catlett, a charcoal portrait of a 19th century figure drawn on a circle of wood by contemporary artist Whitfield Lovell and a tall quilted portrait in pieced indigo denim by Bisa Butler. Darrell and Lisa Walker contributed six works; six others are from UA Little Rock’s permanent collection.


The show includes paintings, prints, mixed media works and sculpture. Besides the historical paintings are modern works, including a jazzy expressionist collage by Benny Andrews and serigraph of musicians by Romare Bearden; and contemporary works, such as two large, forceful portraits of steely-gazed men by Alfred Conteh; an amusing crayon and charcoal portrait by African-American identity commentator Kerry James Marshall; a book of silhouettes by narrative artist Kara Walker; a large oil stick drawing of a woman, absent her head, in 19th century garb by Whitfield Lovell; an ironic painting of crowned woman by Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald; and quilt artist Bisa Butler, as well as other stars in the firmament of black American artists.

The Arkansans in the show — UA Little Rock instructor Aj Smith, retired instructor Marjorie Williams-Smith, former instructors David Clemons and Delita Martin (who lives in Texas but is claimed by Arkansas) and Justin Bryant of Little Rock — hold their own with nationally lauded artists.

In 2007, the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School, Cushman put on the exhibition “Taking Possession,” a show that highlighted black contemporary art by satirical painter Robert Colescott, sound-suit maker Nick Cave, mixed media sculptor Faith Ringgold, photographer Carrie Mae Weems and others. When the show went up, Cushman got a call from Darrell Walker, the former Razorback and pro basketball player and art collector (and now UA Little Rock basketball coach). “He said, ‘You’re putting all my friends in an exhibit and we should be friends,’ ” Cushman said, and the men began an 11-year conversation about art by African Americans.

In 2017, Dr. Lynne Larson, assistant professor of art history at UA Little Rock, told Cushman she was going to teach a survey course on African-American art, and asked if he could curate an exhibition to support it. As it happened, Garbo Hearne, co-owner of Hearne Fine Art with her husband, Dr. Archie Hearne, had asked Cushman if he’d be interested in exhibiting works by Duncanson, Tanner and other early black pioneers at UA Little Rock. “I said, ‘Yes, I would,” Cushman told the Times, “but I’d like to activate that work with modern and contemporary work,’ and Garbo said, ‘Tell me more.’ ” Cushman began investigating the works held by the Arkansas Arts Center, UA Little Rock and Walker.

Along the way, Cushman went to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville to hear a talk by Amy Sherald. He introduced himself afterward and asked if the university could borrow one of her works for the show. Dropping Darrell Walker’s name didn’t hurt; now the show includes Amy Sherald’s “Wellfare Queen,” provided by a private collector from Princeton University.


Mixed media artist Delita Martin was quoted in a recent article in “Pressing Matters” as saying, “I’m very much interested in reconstructing the identity of African-American women, particularly, offering a different narrative to the stereotypes you see in media.” She contributes to the show “The Dinner Table,” an installation of portraits of Martin’s female family and friends done with china marker on plates and hung around a table. The work is undeniably a nod to white artist Judy Chicago, but it is Catlett to whom Martin feels a kinship, she told Cushman.

“On Their Own Terms” is hung to illustrate the tendrils that connect the artists. The first works on entering the main gallery are Catlett’s drawing “Newspaper Vendor”; Sherald’s “Wellfare Queen,” a large-scale painting of a woman in a tiara and purple sash; and the many portraits of women in Martin’s “Dinner Table.”

Cushman has also paired Aj Smith’s larger-than-life and amazing graphite drawing “Faces of the Delta Series: Mr. Q.T., WWII Vet,” with “Portrait of a Model,” a collage of an insouciant fellow by Benny Andrews. Both are images of men, but the greater connection is that it was Andrews who encouraged Smith to move from New York to Arkansas for a job. A third stunning mixed-media work by Alfred Conteh, “Will,” joins the male portrait lineup.

In the small gallery on the first floor, Kehinde Wiley’s “Peter Chardon Study,” a watercolor of a man against a floral field, is paired with David Clemons’ steel caged teapot sculpture “The Trees We Construct to Conceal Our Strange Fruit.” Also in the small gallery, Cushman has grouped Henry Tanner’s quiet drawing “Christ at the Home of Mary” (1905); Robert Pruitt’s in-your-face charcoal and conte crayon “Black Jesus” (2016); and folk artist Bessie Harvey’s “Whore of Babylon” (n.d.), an amalgamation of red-painted wood, glitter and beads from Cushman and husband Bobby’s own collection.

Others who contributed work from their collections are Karen and C.J. Duvall, Pamela and Anthony Vance, Karen and Kevin Cole, Aj Smith, Delita Martin, Dr. Imani Perry, Monique Meloche Gallery and Pierrette Van Cleve.

The opening reception for the exhibition is 5-7 p.m. Feb. 1. Juan Rodriguez of New York, who with Garbo Hearne loaned the many historic paintings to “On Their Own Terms,” will give a talk at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Windgate Center.

Galleries are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday and 2-5 p.m. Sunday. The exhibition will run through March 10.