Wednesday, June 8, 2011

African American Art & Artifacts

Mary Parks Washington, "Progress in Education," 1996, acrylic on wood figures 1 1/4 to 5 3/4 inches

Today’s post is about opportunities the AARL has as a result of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Preservation Assistance Grant. NEH support will enable AARL staff to provide optimum care and access for one its fastest growing collections, Arts and Artifacts (AA), through consultation services provided by two art conservators. The goals of the project, which is currently underway, include:

1.  Assess current conditions of the individual items included in the AA collection.
2.  Obtain recommendations for the care, conservation, and storage of the collection.
3.  Incorporate recommendations in AARL’s renovation and expansion project plans.
4.  Increase awareness and skill level of Archives staff in the identification of conservation needs for artwork on paper.

Pictured above is Progress in Education, a series of nesting dolls in the style of Russian matryoshkas, one of the items examined for the grant. It was created by Mary Parks Washington, a native Atlantan educator and artist, whose work and background have been featured in this blogWashington benefitted from higher education despite the racist policies and practices of her time. Progress in Education shows in visual form the increased opportunities available to African American students following abolition.

Washington’s example follows some aspects of the traditional Russian model; it has five figures, all on the same theme (in this case, people representing stages of African American education after emancipation). It does not feature a woman, as do most traditional matryoshkas. Generally, matryoshkas portray the innermost figure as a small child, infant, or earliest point in a chronological period. Washington’s example matches this, with the smallest doll as a grade school student. As the dolls grow larger in size, they represent achievement of educational degrees with higher esteem (high school, college, master’s level graduate work, and finally doctoral level graduate work).

The work of Washington and other artists in the AA collection is used by patrons for research, as well was AARL staff for educational outreach activities, including exhibitions and donor development. As planning begins for the expansion and renovation of our current building, the conservators’ assessment will help guide architects’ designs for space, housing, and environmental needs of the collection. Furthermore, the assessment will provide direction for the collection's overall growth and care.

Posted by Jessica Epstein, AARL Intern

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