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Two major exhibitions open Krannert Art Museum fall season

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor (217) 333-5491;


colorfully painted wooden mask
Courtesy of the Gelbard Collection of African Art
Mask, Bakongo/Yombe. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, brass hobnails, pigments.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two major exhibitions – one featuring African art, the other photographic images of the American South – will open the fall 2003 season at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Art Museum in late August and early September.

Opening to the public on Aug. 26 is “Remnants of Ritual: Selections From the Gelbard Collection of African Art,” which runs through Oct. 26. The exhibition includes more than 100 pieces – masks, ritual figures and shrine objects, among them – drawn from the extensive collection of art collectors David and Clifford Gelbard. The exhibition originated at Governor’s State University, University Park, Ill., and was curated there by Arthur Bourgeois and Scott Rodolitz. They wrote the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

“The magnificent African art collection of the Gelbard brothers focuses on the cultural significance and aesthetic beauty of masks and sculptures – many of which were created for ceremonial and ritual purposes,” said Michael Conner, who is curating the exhibition at Krannert. “This exhibition includes a wide array of objects and celebrates the durable, expressive essence of festivals, rites and coming-of-age ceremonies.”

Conner, who joined the museum’s curatorial staff this past year, specializes in African art. In addition to his efforts to bring the Gelbard collection to Illinois, Conner has inventoried the museum’s own substantial African collection, redesigning the museum’s permanent African gallery according to regional styles, and returning recently donated but previously stored art to public view.

“This fall, visitors to the museum will be able to view 150 to 200 pieces of fine to excellent examples of traditional African art from around the continent,” Conner said. And that’s a fairly rare opportunity for people in this area. Installations in museums in Chicago and St. Louis are much smaller, Conner said. “In our region, the largest collection of African art is housed in Indianapolis, but many of those pieces have been on display since the mid-1990s.”

Museum goers “will see an extraordinary amount of work, close up, in your face.” That’s because the Gelbard brothers wanted people to experience the works in a more personal manner, rather than through display glass.

Events planned in conjunction with “Remnants of Ritual” include:

  • Sept. 10, 5:30 p.m., traditional processional, a ceremonial opening to the exhibition, featuring the local Adidzo Drum Club playing Ghanaian Dagbamba music, with a brief dedication by Agbenyega Adedze, professor of history at Illinois State University. Arthur Bourgeois and Scott Rodolitz will lead a discussion at 6 p.m. in the museum auditorium; the topic will be the original contexts and cultural and ritual uses of art shown in the exhibition.
  • Oct. 12, 1 p.m., Second Sunday gallery tour, given by Conner, prior to the WILL-FM Second Sunday concert.
Lee Friedlander wearing large white-rimmed sun glasses and playing the guitar
Courtesy of Janet Borden Gallery, New York
Lee Friedlander (b. 1934), New Orleans 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print.

The opening reception for “Remnants of Ritual,” from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 5, coincides with the public opening and reception for the museum’s other major fall show, “Visualizing the Blues: Images of the American South.” Chicago’s Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues will perform at the show’s opening reception.

“Visualizing the Blues,” on view through Nov. 2, features more than 100 photographs dating from the Civil War era through the end of the 20th century. The exhibition, also curated at the Krannert by Conner, was organized by the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn., and has been traveling to museums throughout the United States since it opened in Memphis in October 2000.

“Every picture tells a story, and this exhibition of photographs of the Mississippi Delta region portrays a profoundly vivid narrative of life in the American South,” Conner said. “These photographs show the rhythms of life from this almost mythic region and powerfully document the sources of inspiration for the lyrics and melodies of blues musicians. Among the photographers represented are Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Andres Serrano. The exhibition also includes images by one of the best-known writers to emerge from the region – Eudora Welty.

“When you scratch below the surface, this exhibition has a lot of Memphis flavor – many of the contemporary photographers, such as Ernest Withers and William Eggleston, are from Memphis,” Conner said. Because the focus of the photography is on “both music and culture, there are very few pictures of people playing music,” he said. “It’s more about how photographers from 1863 to the present have presented and interpreted the American South and its culture. It documents the special variety of American experience as it has evolved – not just for African Americans, but all peoples.”

Museum visitors will be able to view the exhibition while listening to tapes featuring John Sinclair’s orations on blues music and the history of the blues. Sinclair is a poet, musician and art historian. A 10-minute video will be available for viewing as well.

The exhibition’s arrival at the Krannert coincides with a number of national initiatives focusing attention on blues music and the culture that gave birth to this original American art form, Conner said. “This is the Year of the Blues,” he said, explaining that Congress made that proclamation last September, designating the year to begin in February 2003. The designation marks the 100th anniversary of an encounter composer W.C. Handy had with a man playing what would later be dubbed the blues.

Conner said a number of music festivals and multimedia projects have been scheduled throughout the year. Among them is a Public Broadcasting Service film series, “The Blues,” which will be broadcast nationally Sept. 28 through Oct. 4.

Among the events planned to augment “Visualizing the Blues” at the Krannert:

  • Sept. 24, 5:30 p.m., auditorium, “Moving the Blues From the Cotton Fields to Town,” a public talk by Michael Lasser, music historian and host of National Public Radio’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” A reception, hosted by WILL-FM, will follow.
  • Oct. 4, 10 a.m. to noon, in the galleries, Kids @ Krannert!, a children’s workshop with blues musicians, sponsored by the Carle Foundation.
  • Oct. 9, 5:30 p.m., East Gallery, “Images of the American South,” a moderated discussion exploring the social and cultural contexts associated with works in the exhibition, with guest John Sinclair.
  • Oct. 22, 5:30 p.m., auditorium, presentation of the 1989 film “Mystery Train,” directed by Jim Jarmusch.

Krannert Art Museum is a unit of the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The museum is located at the corner of Sixth Street and Peabody Drive in Champaign, a block east of Memorial Stadium. The museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; until 8 p.m. on Wednesday; and from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.