May 19, 2016 (Detroit)—The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) recently acquired two artworks by contemporary African American artists: the 2012 photograph “Zero Hour” by Hank Willis Thomas, which is a museum purchase, and “Little Girl Blue,” an oil painting done in 2008 by Detroit native Stefanie Jackson, donated by Brenda Thompson. Neither artist was previously represented in the collection. “Zero Hour” and “Little Girl Blue” are on view in the museum’s African American art galleries.
The new acquisitions are part of DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons’ effort to continue diversifying the museum’s collections by acquiring and displaying more art by women, African Americans and other artists of color.
“I am excited about opportunities for the DIA to continue to collect art that reflects the myriad cultural experiences our visitors bring with them,” said Salort-Pons. “While we have long been on the forefront of collecting African American art, I have been inspired by our recent ’30 Americans’ exhibition to renew our focus on collecting more contemporary African American art. These two new acquisitions are visually stunning and provide insights and perspectives on African American social, political and historical issues that many of our visitors can relate to and find meaning in.”
“Zero Hour,” Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Sanford Biggers, 2012, six-framed photographs, 40 1/2 x 180 in. Detroit Institute of Arts
Thomas is a photo-conceptual artist who looks at African American identity through references to popular culture, advertising, consumerism and African American history. For the six-panel, large-scale “Zero Hour,” he posed fellow artist Sanford Biggers in a suit, gloves and Derby-style hat, and then had Biggers painted half black and half white. Thomas included six photographs of Biggers in character and seated viewed from the waist up. The images are installed in succession with Biggers moving in sequence from an all-black silhouette at one end toward an all-white silhouette at the opposite end. Thomas used a special technique that creates an out-of-focus effect forcing the viewer to stand at different angles to get each photograph in full focus. The viewer is never able to see the entire work clearly from just one vantage point and for Thomas it represents an important analogy in life about how people see and understand each other. He noted that “Zero Hour” is “a metaphor for how I see the world…depending on where you’re standing – it affects what you see.”
For Thomas, this character and series of images embody a range of perspectives and references to socially constructed identities that he has come to define as "cultural hybridity.” The term describes in part the idea of "double consciousness" defined by W.E.B Du Bois as the struggle between two identities existing within each African American—one as an American and the other as an African American—and the necessity for moving instinctually between the two. Thomas has cited other influences upon his thinking about this series, including Barack Obama and the emergence of a half-white half-black president in America; the Haitian Yoruba spirit Alegba who lives in the crossroads between good and bad, life and death; and the wayfarer who wanders in divergent cultures and geographies.
“Little Girl Blue,” Stefanie Jackson, 2008, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 in. Detroit Institute of Arts
Jackson’s art explores African American and U.S. history, contemporary social and political issues, as well as stories about love and loss influenced by her life experiences and appreciation of southern Blues culture. She is a native Detroiter and is currently an associate professor of art at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art.
The surreal scene portrayed in “Little Girl Blue” refers to a tragedy experienced by the artist’s family: the unsolved murder of Jackson’s favorite female cousin in 1970s Detroit when she was in her mid-20s. Jackson has lost several close relatives to violence, and she keeps her memories of them alive by portraying them in her paintings. “Little Girl Blue” depicts her cousin in three stages of her short life: as a young child whose downcast facial expression fills the window opening at the top left of the painting; as a teenager crouched on the floor in front of her sweet-16 birthday cake; and as the young woman whose beauty attracted danger.
The small boy in the lower left has a double-sided face expressing both shock and fear as he flees in horror from the scene. He represents the son of the crime victim who discovered his dead mother’s body in the family’s home. The older woman near him is his grandmother and mother of the deceased. Black crows and ripe pears indicate impending death and decay. A baby doll floating upside-down and Humpty-Dumpty in the background represent childhood toys and stories once shared by the artist and her cousin, as well as the psychological impact of the tragedy on the family.
The title “Little Girl Blue” is taken from a song written for the 1935 Broadway musical “Jumbo.” One of the most popular jazz versions was sung by Nina Simone, who was known for her unique style and civil rights activism. Her moving rendition of the song is favored by Jackson who deemed it appropriate for the tragic mood of the painting.