Upon its opening in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980” shook the art world. The show was the first to highlight the work of self-taught black artists and introduced curators to an “undiscovered” scene that flourished in close-knit black communities in the South. To many black artists, however, the Corcoran show reeked of marginalization. Many significant black folk artists were excluded, and some challenged the distinction Corcoran made between fine art and folk art. When the exhibition came to Chicago in April 1984, instead of being shown at an art gallery it was displayed alongside cultural artifacts at the Field Museum. Despite the odd location, the show inspired collectors in Chicago to learn about and purchase more outsider art.
“If not for that show, there might not have been Intuit,” says curator and artist Faheem Majeed, referring to the Chicago gallery that is the only nonprofit in the country dedicated to presenting outsider art. “It was that show that galvanized and brought up these collectors.”
In honor of Intuit’s 25th anniversary, Majeed revisits the Corcoran event in “Post Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980-2016,” in which he tries to channel the excitement of the original exhibit while addressing some of the earlier criticism. Alongside the work of 16 participants in the 1982 show, he showcases pieces by 30 new artists, whom he discovered while traveling the country and combing through the work of more than 250 self-described black folk artists.
Among the additions is Thornton Dial (1928-2016), who’s considered one of the most important self-taught artists in America but was overlooked by Corcoran’s curators. Like much of the Alabaman’s work, Royal Flag is a collage of mostly found objects, including an American flag, toys, and string. The result is a tattered mess of red, white, and blue that, Majeed says, speaks to Dial’s lifelong critiques of racial, political, and religious issues in the U.S.
Tennessee artist William Edmondson (1874-1951) was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Some of the former tombstone carver’s sculptures were included in the Corcoran show, but not his statuette Angel, which would be as fitting in a graveyard as in an art gallery.
In the three decades since “Black Folk Art,” outsider art and the work of black artists are no longer the purview of niche collectors. Earlier this year, Christie’s set a record for auction price of a piece of outsider art with the sale of a sculpture by Edmondson. Still, the terms “outsider art” and “black folk art” remain contentious. Several of the artists Majeed approached thought the latter designation was insulting and didn’t want to be included in the show. That apprehension is familiar in the realm of outsider art, a fluid genre in which collectors and curators often disagree on which works qualify.
“The right answer is just to call it art,” Majeed says. “The qualifier is problematic.” v