Trenton celebrates African American culture with artwork and a festival

The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie planned two of its summer exhibitions to coordinate with the African American Cultural Festival in Cadwalader Park on Saturday, August 15.  

In …of Color: The African American Experience, on view through Aug. 30, artwork explores feelings of invisibility; feats in dance, music and athleticism; and the strength and dignity of, say, a humble farmer, a street vendor, a woman smiling shyly. 

The companion exhibit, On Their Walls: Area African American Collectors and Their African American Art, on view through Sept. 13, showcases works collected by four African American women.

In the first exhibit, artist and Philadelphia native Siri Om Singh likens the experience of growing up African American to being a hobo, a person in transition. He came of age unsure of his identity. “Am I Negro, Colored, Black, American?” he posits. None of the labels resonated, so his search for identity led him to become a yogi. “This led me to search for mystical healing within myself. Taking a stand for my own personal power was a magical healing experience” as he connected with his Caribbean roots.

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Terry Freemark painted a watercolor portrait of a woman executed by the state of Texas in 2013. “As I applied the warms and cools of her skin pigments, bits of her story began to emerge for me,” says Freemark.

A vase with intertwined halves, one side black and one side white in a sort of yin-yang connection, was created by Joyce Inderbitzen in tribute to her three mixed race grandchildren and the union of their parents, “symbolizing how beautiful black and white can be together.” 

Elijah Sabree has included a photo from a series on homelessness. “Disenfranchised individuals, mental health and homelessness are major issues in the African American community and need to be highlighted and addressed,” writes Sabree. Ironically, outside the museum window, a man can be seen picking through a trash can. 

Artist Dennis Normile grew up a stone’s throw from Cadwalader Park, when it was a culturally mixed neighborhood. “One of the things I remember were the big porches and the kids and adults sitting on the stoops,” he says. His painting is of such a family sitting at the front of their home.

Leticia Acevedo painted “Queen,” a bejeweled woman in a turban. “Queen is who she is. She looks in the mirror and demands respect. As women… we must remind our sisters and ourselves that we are all worthy, we are all queens.” 

Among the other experiences: poverty (David Meadow tells us the poverty rate for African Americans is 28 percent, along with his painting of a man and woman living in substandard housing); women who have made sacrifices by serving in Iraq; the struggles of black farmers.

Kathleen Liao, who is white, says she cannot know the African American experience, but through music, dance, poetry, literature and visual art, has felt the despair and exuberance. “As I contemplated the exhibit theme, the question posed by Langston Hughes in his poem ‘Harlem’ (1951) kept ringing in my head: What happens to a dream deferred?” She plays with the words of the poem in her mixed media piece, ending with a big “What.”

In one of the exhibition’s most dynamic works, John Picolli paints the “Universal Soldier.” He has one black hand and one white hand, and is said to represent all the colors who serve our armed forces. Picolli, a Navy veteran, includes in the background three brown figures who appear in a casket, representing the losses of African Americans who have served.

In an offset print so realistic it at first looks like a photograph, So Yoon Lym  presents the tops of 16 heads, showing the different braiding patterns. “Each braided pattern… is a map of the ancient universe, a topographical palimpsest of the world in pattern: Valleys, mountains, forests, oceans, rivers, streams… the braid patterns both record journeys to the present… and are a stamp of entry into a brave new world order while simultaneously remembering prehistory.”

Juror Wendell Brooks, a printmaker, Trenton resident and professor emeritus at the College of New Jersey, has been exploring the African American Experience since visiting Alabama as a young man. 

Kali McMillan, a photographer and art historian who curated the companion exhibit, traveled to Africa numerous times, bringing home images. She was most struck by seeing girls her own age, growing up with less privilege (McMillan grew up in West Windsor) – a street vendor with a tray of cupcakes on her head, or girls sailing in a makeshift rig.

Highlights of On Their Walls include five serigraphs from the Prevalence of Ritual Portfolio by Romare Bearden completed in 1974, as well as a few rarely seen paintings by Trenton artist Tom Malloy.

“The art collector plays a vital role in the art world,” says McMillan. “This is significant for African American art collectors who collect art to showcase culture, confirm its value and support artists who are typically undervalued.” The exhibit explores “the importance of cultural dialogue through art.” 

The works are created by a mix of recognizable artists – such as eminent American artist Bearden — and lesser-known artists who may rise to prominence as a result of collecting and exhibiting.

In conjunction with Trenton’s African American Cultural Festival Aug. 15, the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie is exhibiting …of Color: The African American Experience, on view through Aug. 30, and On Their Walls: Area African American Collectors and Their African American Art, on view through Sept. 13.  


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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