In the spirit of Langston Hughes, artists who work with media from video to pastel to performance have come together to celebrate Black History Month.
At the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery on Audobon Street, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven’s “A Tribute to Langston Hughes” displays pastel works by Renaldo Davidson. On Feb. 22, video artist Nick Martin and performance artist Anthony Thompson will present their work alongside the permanent exhibition, which will run until March 22, under the direction of Katro Storm. The one-time multimedia showcase will feature edited interviews of Davidson presenting his pieces and Thompson reading selected poems by Hughes and performing a solo adaptation of Hughes’ “Tales of Simple.”
Storm explained that the range of media present in the exhibit evokes Hughes’ ability to create partnerships with artists of various genres and media.
“This is what Langston would have wanted,” Storm said. “Initially, we wanted to have the video and performance happening continually in the gallery because they are part of the exhibition.”
The artists all have an intimate relation to Hughes’ works and ideals. For instance, Hughes was very keen on the idea of simplicity — an idea reflected in Thompson’s work. Thompson explained that Hughes wanted his work to be understood by everyone, independent of educational or economic background.
“With very few props, ‘Adeagbo’ (Anthony) can create a whole universe on stage,” Storm said.
As Davidson described his artwork, he referred to Hughes as his “muse.” Davidson’s work, simple-looking pastels on print paper, explores many of Hughes’ favorite themes, such as jazz music and African-American history. His figures are sometimes caricatures, and his characters’ facial expressions convey emotions that range from deep sorrow to exploding joy. One pastel represents four young African-American girls who died in an explosion, in which they appear well dressed and smiling.
“It would have been too easy to represent the violence. This pastel is more of a tomb for them,” Davidson said.
Another of Davidson’s works is what he calls a “remix” of a photo of two African-American Yale students raising their gloved fists in protest during a football game in 1968.
“I only thought of Yale as an Ivy school before,” Davidson said. “I didn’t even know there were African-American students at Yale in the 60s and 70s.”
Storm said that the exhibition was “perfect for New Haven” because of the city’s vibrant African-American community. He added that people often forget that black history is always related to black culture and community, and he wanted to bring a community of artists together around the exhibit. Renaldo’s work centers around community as well: He appended a series of his pastels on Michael Jackson so that the public could sign the works.
“That way,” said Renaldo, “the community is creating the art with me.”
Storm explained that the exhibit is interesting because unlike many African-American history exhibits, it showcases artists who are less well known yet still active in the community.
“When you see exhibitions on African-American history, you always see the usual suspects, Malcolm X and MLK. I wanted to do something different, something I was interested in,” Storm said.
Thompson has centered his work on Langston Hughes for a long time. He directed one of Hughes’ plays, “Black Nativity,” and for the past four years has been performing as Hughes’ character Jesse B. Simple in multiple venues in New York, including arts festivals and universities, as well as libraries and churches.
“These are the people that Hughes was writing for, and these are the people I want to perform for,” Thompson said.
In 1926, Carter Woodson, Langston Hughes’ mentor and close friend, created Black History Week, later expanded into Black History Month.