By Graciano Clause
This February marks the 40th anniversary of Black History Month, which was recognized by the federal government in 1976. As part of this year’s celebration, the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning will showcase work by Weusi artist collective members. The month-long exhibit of the Weusi story emphasizes the importance of African-American imagery in a modern setting.
Weusi comes from the Swahili word meaning blackness. The 14 artists of Weusi surfaced in Harlem in 1965, against the backdrop of the Black Arts Movement, which made African iconic imagery the central part of their work.
Curated by MLJ Johnson, art chairman at St. Joseph Regional High School, the exhibit presents work by Johnson himself, as well as Weusi artists Che Baraka, Stanyck E. Cromwell, Robert Daniels, Taiwo Duvall, Gaylord Hassan, Rod Ivey, Dindga McCannon, Karl A. Mclntosh, Otto Neals, Ademola Olugebefola, Okoe Pyatt, Ed Sherman and Emmett Wigglesworth.
“What this exhibit shows is the continuum of the struggle to get our personal culture to continue,” said Johnson, who is curating his second exhibit at JCAL. “The power of African imagery is as relevant today as it’s ever been.”
As an artist and educator, he has curated his works for 30 years globally, working on exhibitions in the United States, London, Spain, South America, Puerto Rico and the countries of the African Diaspora. With the Black History Month exhibit now open to the public, Johnson would like his audience to understand his message.
“Although times have changed the message is the same, which is blackness. I heard a story with people saying that there are no more black leaders. The black leaders are still there, they’ve gone into academia now by teaching classes. If you wanted to see Dr. King, you had to make appointments in order to get to him. Now he might be standing in front of your classroom teaching,” Johnson said.
As regards his own work, he said it highlights what he calls the “pictograms of life” phenomenon. The way he gets his idea across is to begin with a word and then allow it to morph into the images he creates.
Ademola Olugebefola, one of the original founders of the Weusi artist collective, framed what is expected in a symbolic way.
“What we’re doing is giving the viewer the ability to grasp our reality. We are trying to remind people about the human touch,” Olugebefola said. He mentioned that what the members of Weusi are offering is organic, at a time when technology is constantly moving forward.
One of the many highlights to be displayed at the JCAL-Robert Miller Gallery at 161-04 Jamaica Ave., is a light sculpture made by Olugebefola himself. Made it in 2009 from plexiglas, electrical apparatus and neon lights, it aims to embrace the new consciousness evident in society today.
The opening reception is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 19, but the exhibit will be on view until Mar. 24. There will also be an artist talk at 4 p.m. Feb. 20, which is free.
“Our focus as it has always been is in creating images that complement and support people of color in terms of culture, but our audience is global. We want the world to see what we’re doing,” he said.