San Francisco

Juba Solo and Joseph Geran

The BlackMan's Art Gallery

The BlackMan’s Art Gallery has celebrated its third anniversary with a group show representing all of the gallery’s 12 artists. The gallery was founded because of a belief that there was no place where black people could go to see their own faces and lives in works of art, and the further belief that there was no gallery where a black artist could go and receive fair treatment and philosophic understanding. Its founder was a self-taught sculptor who has discarded the name given to him, W. O. (“Bill”) Thomas, Jr., and taken the name Juba Solo.

Although he has had little time for his own work in the past three years, he is one of the best artists his gallery shows. Sculpture is well represented at the BlackMan’s Art Gallery. My favorite single piece in the third anniversary show was God of Self, by Joseph Geran, a statue of African inspiration. Geran also does masks of great emotive power. Another sculptor, who calls himself AUM from the Oriental chant, displayed two remarkably ornamented drums, one called Town Talker and the other simply Drum.

The gallery is on Haight Street, in the heart of a black neighborhood, but it has provided a cultural service to the whole Bay Area. It has been visited by over 400 school classes, from public schools and nearby colleges. Both white and black people buy from the gallery, and one of Juba Solo’s gratifying experiences in running the gallery hasbeen watching the growth of interest in buying art among black families.

The work shown is in a variety of styles, but Solo does not consider black art to be any art at all produced by persons of black skin. He has his own ideas about what constitutes black subject matter and treatment, and his artists fairly consciously try to dissociate themselves from what they call European art. The development of a purely black consciousness in art seems to be an urgent enterprise in this gallery; Juba Solo writes that “. . . he who does not have a philosophy of his own is a victim of another’s.”

He believes that European art has been artificially separated from other human activities and that high art, as it is practiced in the white world, is a game. There are historic and cultural reasons why Juba Solo and his artists reject the formalist view of art and the art-for-art’s-sake ideas of modernism in general. One of the basic functions of art is to show us what we look like and how we live. For most white Americans this function is superabundantly taken care of by commercial art; according to my conception of myself, I may find myself in New Yorker ads, on record jackets, in the pages of Rolling Stone. Black people cannot find themselves in those places.

The work of such a painter as Frank Stella is very far from being a primary response to the appearances of nature and social life; it presupposes the existence of many earlier works, and much experience of looking at art. On the whole, black people either have not had that experience or cannot accept that art as their own. Although many blacks have chosen to use various parts of their experience of Western art, others feel, as does Juba Solo, that it is necessary for them to find their usable past in African art and, as nearly as possible, to make wholly new beginnings.

Supporting this view psychologically are the well-founded fears of disrespect and injustice that many blacks feel when confronting the white world, but there are also quite real historical reasons for black separatism in art. The BlackMan’s Art Gallery is not only an explainable institution, it is a necessary one.

Jerome Tarshis