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Lifestyle

June 6, 2013

In conversation

PEM exhibit connects art, race and American culture

The works of art in Peabody Essex Museum’s new exhibit, “In Conversation, Modern African American Art,” have a lot to say.

Each of the 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs, which were created between the 1920s and the 1990s by 43 artists, tells a unique story about the human experience.

But when grouped together in three galleries at the museum, where connections between the works become apparent, their stories develop into overlapping dialogues about race, art and American culture and history.

“The show is organized as evocative, visual conversations,” said Lynda Hartigan, the James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator at the museum. “As if the works are calling and responding to one another as intimate and even urgent, urgent images of identity, interaction and change.”

Hartigan developed an intimate bond with these works, which she referred to as “old friends,” when she selected many of them for the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she worked from 1983 to 2003.

“We can have really wonderful conversations about some of the challenges of building a national collection, at a time when many museums in this country simply did not want to think about including the work of African American artists,” she said.

The period these works are drawn from includes not only some of the most important artistic movements, but milestones in African American history, from the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration from the South to the North, to the civil rights movement.

If some museums have resisted showing African American art, at Peabody Essex Museum there is a “love for doing things differently,” Hartigan said.

For this show, that has meant including unique features in the galleries to facilitate conversations, among visitors and between people and paintings.

Curators’ comments are printed in binders, along with reproductions of the images, in racks on the wall. Less cumbersome than catalogs, and less distracting than texts mounted on the wall, they are a handy way to hear what others think before moving on to the next gallery.

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