Whitfield Lovell’s Passages Exhibit: Hidden Stories and Cultural Memories

Whitfield Lovell photographed in his New York City studio September 20, 2007. Photo by Zack Seckler.

Whitfield Lovell’s Passages Exhibit: Hidden Stories and Cultural Memories

By John Burton Jr.

“Any work of art must first of all tell a story.” This quote by Robert Frost epitomizes famed contemporary artist Whitfield Lovell. Recognized as one of the world’s leading artistic interpreters of lost African American history, his artistry is based on found images of African American people from African Americans who lived during the Emancipation Proclamation through the Civil Rights Movement.

His six-state traveling exhibition “Whitfield Lovell: Passages,” will be on display at The Mint Museum Uptown starting June 29, 2024. Lovell’s compelling multi-sensory journey pays homage to Black ancestry from slavery to the present day. Consisting of two immersive installations and approximately 30 additional works, “Passages” is the most comprehensive exhibition of works by Lovell.

Born in the Bronx, New York from Barbados paternal roots and southern U.S. maternal roots, Lovell’s upbringing was a cacophony of culture. He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York and later attended the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art and Parsons School of Design before receiving a BFA from Cooper Union in 1981. Works by Lovell have been featured in major museum collections including The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Seattle Art Museum. In 2007, Lovell was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant.

At The Mint, the “Passages” exhibition brings together two of Lovell’s major installations, “Deep River” (2013) and “Visitation: The Richmond Project” (2001), with a selection of freestanding tableaux and works on paper from his acclaimed “Kin” series (2008–2011) and “Spell Suite” (2019–2020).

Also featured is the premiere presentation of his forthcoming “Card Pieces II,” captivating portraits that use found objects such as antique photos from discarded family albums, mug shots and archives found in flea markets. Even the wood comes from old homes where old souls once inhabited. Attendees can prepare themselves to be riveted by the hidden histories and cultural memories of the African American experience through the collection.

“Passages” delves into the rich tapestry of the African American experience, touching on themes of equality, physical migration, social progress, and self-sufficiency. The artworks are strikingly presented on luscious, deep crimson paper, evoking a sense of warmth, passion, and vitality.

Museumgoers will also encounter two functional telephones that, when lifted, emanate the stirring and familiar melody of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the iconic hymn penned and set to music by brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. “We’re so excited about this exhibition. There is a vulnerability and sincerity in his (Lovell) work. You cannot leave his space feeling uncaressed,” said Jennifer Sudul Edwards, PhD, chief curator and curator of Contemporary Art at The Mint Museum. “You fall into the works’ arms because you have no other choice,” Edwards adds.

A 2022 analysis of almost 350,000 works acquired and nearly 6,000 exhibitions staged at 31 museums across the U.S. between 2008 and 2020 reveals how drastically underrepresented female-identifying and Black American artists remain. Times are changing. Diversity among arts executives, curators, and board leadership is broadening. More women and people of color are helming the once segregated art spaces which accredits a brighter spotlight on diversity.

Change in leadership, the U.S. cultural landscape, and a mounting curiosity about unfamiliar cultures are byproducts of the new art revolution. “There is a shift of desire to understand cultural stories,” Edwards said.

This cultural conversion may be easy for some to accept whereas difficult for others to navigate. “It could be terrifying for some to realize their elders lied and didn’t tell them the whole story. Yet there are beautiful stories (some) people could appreciate and learn from,” Edwards explained.

As the pivoting occurs, it is making an impact. According to a recent report from the art market website ArtNet, the market for work by African American artists grew by nearly 400% between 2008 and 2021.

“There is a certain hunger to see what they heard about but don’t know,” Edwards said. Lovell’s Passages aids in the evolution. He meticulously articulates honor of the African-American experience through ingenious glimpses into the turbulent past while challenging the viewer to reimagine the future. It is an artful passage worth (seeing).”

Organized by the American Federation of Arts in collaboration with the artist, the exhibition is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Terra Foundation for American Art, the exhibition will fill galleries on Level 3 and Level 4 of the Mint Museum Uptown.