Most artists have a hard time selling anything in Madison, said the head of a Madison art organization.
“I don’t know if it’s cultural or demographic,” said Lance Owens, director of an organization called ArtWorking, which is helping to represent artist Romano Johnson in a new exhibit by male, African-American artists that was put up in the Overture Playhouse Gallery Friday. “We have these beautiful spaces, but not the population density.”
The Fresh Perspective exhibit opened Saturday and will run until Feb. 28, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday.
The exhibit includes 20 artists displaying 45 pieces, including paintings, quilts, photographs, mixed media and pottery. Most of the art is for sale, although a couple of artists have listed their work for display only.
The organization behind the exhibit is the Milwaukee-based Fresh Perspective Art Collective, a group of black male artists with members in Madison, Racine, Kenosha and other parts of the state. The group stages art shows across Wisconsin.
The collective started in 2014 with a few artists and now has 50 to 60, said Tim John, a spokesman for Fresh Perspective. The group includes Harvard graduates as well as others who have done prison time.
“We’re about everybody — all black men in all walks of life in Wisconsin,” John said, noting that to his knowledge this is the first art exhibit in Madison consisting of a group of all-black, male artists.
The group aims to have one show in Madison a year, whether it’s in the Overture Center or not, he said. The shows are not juried in order to encourage as many African-American male artists to exhibit as possible.
“It’s important to represent,” said Odalo Wasikhongo, 37, a Madison children’s book author and illustrator with two paintings and framed book covers in the exhibit. “It’s a love movement and the ultimate message is self-empowerment and recognizing one’s divine self or one’s higher self. Elevating the consciousness is my ambition.”
Wasikhongo’s brother, Comfort Wasikhongo, is also exhibiting in the show. Comfort, 38, has a large portrait of body builder Víctor Martínez on display. Martinez is one of a series of body builders Comfort has painted.
Looking around, Comfort Wasikhongo said, each artist is creating unique works that can’t be lumped together as one type of art, and that’s because the artists are each coming from different communities and experiences.
Still, since they’re all Wisconsin residents, there’s a familiarity about the art being exhibited, he said. “There’s a shared experience, a shared history.”
One artist in the exhibit, DarRen Morris, is unlike any other in that he is currently incarcerated with no chance of parole.
At age 17, Morris was sentenced to life in prison, with parole possible in 100 years. He has spent more than half of his life in Wisconsin maximum security prisons.
Judith Gwinn Adrian, who teaches prison reform and sociology classes at Edgewood College, submitted two of Morris’ community scenes for the exhibit. Morris, who is now 39, grew up in Kenosha and the paintings are scenes from his memory. The self-taught artist painted both while incarcerated.
One, titled “Hands Down,” has girls jumping rope, a boy reading a book, a mother holding a baby, and some people dancing. Maya Angelou is in the background.
“The ordinary events of daily life,” said Adrian, who wrote a book with Morris. “The implication is that when you are in the community where you grew up, you don’t need to have your hands up because you feel safe. So you can move around with your hands down.”