By Sarah Wibell
An exhibition of work by the Madison native artist, illustrator, and activist Benny Andrews will be on display at the Morgan County African-American Museum Saturday, February 16-23. Andrews was born November 13, 1930, and grew up with nine siblings in Plainview, an African-American community of Madison, Georgia, in the segregated south. His father, George, was a folk artist and his mother, Viola, a minister. After serving in the Korean War, Andrews used the GI Bill to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he honed his natural skills. After graduation, he moved to New York City where he developed his unique style and shared his memories and perspective on social injustices, the South, and African-American culture with the world. A “self-proclaimed ‘people’s painter’”, Andrews died November 10, 2006 (Vallarino Fine Art).
ëNo line where
According to the Benny Andrews Estate, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis said, “For Benny there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me. I can see him now: thinking, speaking, articulating what needs to be done and in the next few moments trying to make real what he had been contemplating. He was honest to a fault, and I think it was his determination to speak the plain truth that shaped his demand for justice and social integrity. He never aligned with any political group, but would offer the full weight of his support to anyone he thought was standing for truth.”
The official opening of “Benny Andrews – Illustrator”, a collaboration between MCAAM and the Benny Andrews Estate, will highlight a special event – a public reading on Saturday, February 23 from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. at Madison’s Public Safety Building’s Meeting Hall, 160 N Main Street. Children’s books that Andrews illustrated will be read by Andrews’ wife – artist Nene Humphrey, Andrews’ niece Kendall Latimer, McDaniels, and three members of the local community. A reception will follow. Humphrey and Latimer will travel from New York to attend and share these works. Andrews’ illustrations will be featured at MCAAM through March 29.
“This isn’t like an exhibit where it’s art for art’s sake,” stated Pellom McDaniels III, Ph.D., curator not only of this exhibit but also of African American Collections in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. “It’s not just using our wall and getting a caption about who did it, the date, and the title. This is intentional in terms of understanding who the artist was, who he is. Understanding that he is from here and that his work reflects his own desire to make sure people remember the history. And it’s a history of the South, of African Americans, of education, and of why these things are important for all of us. So there are captions that give you annotations of the books, and then there’s a title panel that not only gives you a history of Benny in Georgia but also what he ends up doing in his career. There’s a little bio piece, too, to go along with some of the photographs in a part of the show.”
McDaniels explained that it’s especially important for kids to realize that they can go from Madison or Morgan County or Georgia and see the world just like Benny did. “In a children’s book… the art is going to be the most compelling part. Kids love to see what’s being said in the book through the image, and the words actually just add to it and animates it in a way that opens up their minds.” He further said, “The hope is that not only are these images reflective of Benny the artist, who came from Madison, but also are aspirational for kids who want to do things outside of Madison (and show that) there is a big world out there waiting for you to come and see it.
“Also, the literacy part, the (children’s) books that Benny illustrated, represents his love of reading, illustration, telling stories, history. There is so much to take from even adults reading these books – things that we may have forgotten, things of our own history. There are opportunities for intergenerational conversations not only through the books but also the paintings. He was a very important activist working and using the arts to help connect human beings. His work in prisons in New York, his support of childhood arts in terms of exposing kids to art both as a teacher and as a mentor – this is reflective of all those qualities that this artist, illustrator, and activist maintained throughout his entire career.”
ëJanitors at Restí
Andrews developed what is described as “a technique of rough, expressive collage” that incorporated various materials into his paintings. McDaniels expanded, “I find his work to be arresting, and it connects to where he’s from – the colors, the textures. I think he said, when he was at the Art Institute in Chicago, that what he was doing in terms of his classroom work was important, but it didn’t feel real.”
Andrews found a way to connect with reality in his first collage, the famous painting ‘Janitors at Rest’. The janitors were Southern black men living in Chicago. When the students would spill paint on the floor, they’d come mop it up. McDaniels explained, “Andrews (one of the few black students) would hang out with them in their closet, and they would talk – talk about home and what was going on in Chicago – and he wanted to incorporate them and what they do into his art. So, he painted this picture of the janitors at work and took one of their work cloths and put it into the painting.”
McDaniels noted that different textures like burlap or rope in Andrews’ collages provide a depth to the paintings, “a richness of culture,” that is only fully appreciated if you know the place or the people that inspired the work.
“(This exhibition) is an important project. We forget the people who come from the places we live. It’s not that we do it intentionally. Time goes by and those moments when they were at the height of their global significance fades – new people arrive and go. But for someone like Benny Andrews and the Andrews family in Morgan County, their contributions have been significant.”
The Morgan County connection
In November 2016, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York presented “Benny Andrews – The Bicentennial Series”. These six monumental murals were created in the 70s in anticipation of the country’s bicentennial. McDaniels, who contributed the major essay for the catalogue, believes these are some of Andrews’ most important works of art. “Each one connected him to Georgia, to Madison, and to Plainview. But they also connected Georgia to the United States and to the world. So his work would always come back full circle to his foundation; he always came back home.
“I think part of it was that his inspiration came from Georgia, came from home, but he always wanted to be connected to the people he came from, because those stories that he’s telling through his work, some of them were memories, some were maybe fabricated, but if he came back home he would be reinforced that this was my experience, these are the people I came from, these are the people I write about, the people I paint, the people I am in conversation with when I’m in my studio alone. These are the people I’m sharing with this big world that will never come to Madison or come to Plainview or come to Athens. So, I think he was always in conversation with his own particular history, his own past, but also making sure that the world knew where he came from and the people he came from.
Using opportunity to advance a cause
“This person who is so important to arts and activism represents this world of sharecropping, the South, and what one can become given the opportunity. I missed the opportunity to sit down with him and know his story from him, but I am learning his story through his papers, through his sketchbooks, and exploring his life through his work and what he would write and what he would say and what other people would say about him. So, I don’t know him…I never had a conversation with him, but I am in dialogue with him through his work.
What does it mean?
“That’s also what we want. We want whoever comes to see this exhibit to be in dialogue with the work, not just by opening the books and looking at the pictures, but to reflect upon themselves by looking through what he’s representing. Education is extremely important – I think we all know that – but do we ever reflect on that? Do we ever take a step back and ask the questions of why? It’s not just about getting a job. It’s about being able to be in conversation with different people, think critically, make decisions that will have longstanding impacts on our lives and our community. So, it’s also a community opportunity to bring people around someone who was a favorite son and to have a conversation about what does it mean for Madison, what does it mean for Morgan County.”
The books that will be read on February 23 include Pictures for Miss Josie by Sandra Belton, The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, Langston Hughes by David Roessel & Arnold Rampersad, Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson, Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights by Jim Haskins, and Sky Sash So Blue by Libby Hathorn.