In the Delta Arts Center in Winston-Salem, Aunt Jemima grimaces with rage, spatula wielded high in her right hand as she bursts free of the pancake-and-waffle-mix box inscribed with Chicago police badges as stars in the American flag, a black-gloved fist and “ingredients” like Somalia, Haiti and Harlem.
Murray DePillars’ 1968 pencil drawing re-envisions the corporate icon, confronting the soothing, comfortable “mammy” stereotype of white-supremacist fancy, depicting black women who worked as housekeepers and often nursed white families’ children during slavery.
“Aunt Jemima” adorns the walls of the Delta Arts Center, a relatively unsung gem of Winston-Salem’s arts scene, as part of an exhibit highlighting significant 20th and 21st century works by African-American artists. The pieces are on loan from the art collection at Bennett College, a historically black college for women founded in Greensboro in 1873. The exhibit, on display through Nov. 10, includes paintings, multimedia works, collage and drawings from artists such as Arturo Lindsay, Faith Ringgold, Benny Andrews, Varnette Honeywood and Louis Delsarte.
The late Eva Hamlin Miller keeps company, too.
In 1937, she became Bennett College’s first art professor and chaired art departments at Bennett, Tuskegee Institute and Winston-Salem State University throughout her career. She taught and founded the HC Taylor Art Gallery at North Carolina A&T State University and served eight years as the art supervisor for Greensboro public schools. Many of her commissioned stained-glass works still nest in windows of Greensboro churches. In 1991 she and a former student, now-Congresswoman Alma Adams, joined with others to found the African-American Atelier in the Greensboro Cultural Center, where she served as curator in the months before her death.
Her 1991 acrylic on canvas “Nefertiti” now adorns a far wall at the Delta Arts Center. The Egyptian queen’s race remains a topic of debate but, here — like many artists of the African diaspora — Miller claims her as a woman of black ancestry. The wealthy era of her reign alongside husband Akhenaten is reflected in eye-catching patterns and vivid colors: In the foreground of lush swaths of drapery she lies on a bed of maroon, gold and purple — colors associated with royalty — and her state of repose clothed in only sheer, angel-blue fabric indicates royal standing. Nefertiti rests on a saffron-orange pillow, perhaps a nod to Aten, or sun disc, the sole god worshipped after the religious revolution she led upon ascension to the throne. Viewers catch her gazing into her own eyes without expression in the golden, ovular bedside mirror. Is this how she sees herself, or a reflection of the observer’s gaze?
Miller’s “Complexities of the Madonna” in oil hangs in stark contrast: highly abstract, featuring an earthier palette. In Western fine arts, the Madonna is a representation of the Virgin Mary, primarily rooted in Catholic and Orthodox Christian interpretations during the Italian Renaissance. In this 1964 nonfigurative rendering, though, Miller appears to wrestle with the Madonna-whore complex, a misogyny-laden psychological conflict in which women — categorized as either virginal, saintly Madonnas to be admired or depraved whores to be sexually objectified and dominated — are ultimately loathed while compelled to grapple day-to-day with the fabricated contradiction. Freud, of course, offered his psychoanalytic theories, though many scholars point to the evolution of the false dichotomy in Western mythologies and Judeo-Christian theology. Given her lifelong critical focus on race, it’s fair to assume that “Complexities” is at least part commentary on the unique ways in which black women are forced to navigate a cultural crossroads of gender and racial Catch-22s in a post-chattel slavery America.
Learn more at deltaartscenter.org/gallery and visit at 2611 New Walkertown Road (W-S).
John Rogers, a painter, graphic artist and designer living in High Point, found a mentor in Miller, his former instructor. Also a founding member of the African-American Atelier Gallery, he collaborated with Miller on a number of local projects including a mural in the Williams Dining Hall on the A&T campus. A giclée print of his original 2002 painting “Liberty and Justice for All,” now in the Delta Arts gallery, depicts the four men who performed the Woolworth sit-in outside the old luncheonette on the foreground of the Betsey Ross flag, with specters of four civil rights protesters holding signs reading “support the sit-in movement,” “one nation indivisible,” and “equal rights NOW” in the white stripes. However prominent — in the Rogers’ painting or real-life — all eight figures’ shadows point in the same direction: forward.
The exhibit features artists from across the US, though, from distinct backgrounds that manifest on the canvas. Still, it’s notable how many featured artists have local ties. The Delta Arts Center first sponsored an Elizabeth Catlett exhibit at the Urban League Building in 1986. She and Dr. Maya Angelou, then a Wake Forest University professor, shared a public conversation in the midst of her 2008 exhibit. Romare Bearden, born in rural Mecklenberg County outside of Charlotte, designed “Homage to Roots,” currently on the Delta Arts walls, for a 1977 TV Guide cover story about the watershed television series Roots: The Saga of the American Family.
It’s fitting that DePillar’s defiant Jemima is the first work gallery-goers encounter; she makes clear that the space is brimming with works from African-American artists invested in decolonizing their art, unapologetically forging new conceptions of an inherited identity.