Art of the minority culture

By Rory Mccarty

Senior Reporter

He may not be an artist himself, but George N’Namdi believes art can be a powerful tool for giving a voice to underrepresented people.

N’Namdi’s Seminal African American Art Collection will be on display through Oct. 12 at the Oakland University Art Gallery in Wilson Hall. N’Namdi’s art collection, which is primarily abstract, has been on display in New York and Chicago.

“I think we’re doing this show because art by these artists is unevenly represented,” said Dick Goody, OUAG Director. Goody said African American art has historically been marginalized and segregated by the mainstream art community.

The collection contains works from artists who used many different mediums, including oil and acrylic paintings, drawings, photos, and free standing and hanging sculptures. One hanging sculpture by Chakaia Booker is made entirely of pieces of tires, inner tubes and nozzles.

The art explores a wide variety of issues with many pieces confronting taboos and customs of American society. David Hammons’ “African American Flag” combines the U.S. flag with the colors red, black and green instead of red, white and blue.

Works like “African American Flag” have ideological significance and compel viewers to challenge stereotypes. Others, like Raymond Saunders’ drawing, “Lady with Red Heart Walking,” are intended as “vehicles of free expression” rather than to project any specific political ideal.

Some of the works are racially charged, like Rashid Johnson’s oil-based, faux-graffiti piece “HNIC.”  The acronym stands for “Head Nigga in Charge,” a title with a great deal of irony attached to it.

“The term ‘HNIC’ really means nothing, so it has significance and insignificance. It’s about not being branded,” said Monica Bowman, an independent curator and writer of all the catalogue entries at the art gallery.

Some of the art features more geometrical, grid based patterns, like Jack Whitten’s “Formal Relay.” Whitten’s painting supposedly began with the artist painting crisscrossing straight lines with an afro comb.

“The artist is trying to make something abstract, but they’re also trying to exceed the picture plane by having something constructed,” Bowman said.

As with much abstract art, some works defy easy interpretation. For example, Phyllis Dianne Jones’ “Stan’s Dance” uses a collage of images, like a race car, a family on a boat and a lion, to form a person. It was the first piece of art N’Namdi put in his collection.

N’Namdi said the major thread that runs throughout the collection it’s outside-the-box inspiration.

“The artists here have reinvented something,” N’Namdi said. “They’ve invented a new way

of looking at art.”

N’Namdi began collecting art during the 1960s when the countercultural spirit of rebellion influenced him to help preserve African American culture. Since then, his collection has grown to include over 200 works.

“I wanted to do this show because I wanted our student body, which is primarily white, to experience it,” Goody said. “When you think of African American culture you think of a singular thing, and it’s not at all.”

George N’Namdi spoke to an audience at Varner Hall Sunday about his collection, where he discussed how he became an art collector and his philosophy on collecting.

“I never had a desire to do anything in art. I did have a desire to present art,” N’Namdi said.

N’Namdi bought his first painting, “Stan’s Dance,” for $120. He couldn’t describe how he knew he liked the painting, he simply liked it.

“In my beginning years, I didn’t know art. You just begin to start enjoying it,” N’Namdi said.

Though he knew little about art when he began collecting, he learned more by talking to the artists whose works he admired.

N’Namdi began to buy art pieces from art shows based on the pieces he liked that were left at the end of the show. He had been told that the pieces not purchased already by the end of the art show were “the difficult ones,” and they were the ones that would make him happier in the end.

“You don’t have to like everything. You don’t have to understand everything. You just have to try to figure it out.”

He began to think of his art collection and the gallery as his social responsibility to preserve the art and give more people the opportunity to view it.