Art for Our Time, Perez Art Museum Miami

Meleko Mokgosi Democratic Intuition, Comrades: Addendum, 2017. Two panels: silkscreen, pigment transfer, acrylic, and oil on canvas. 108 x 154 overall. © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Art and Soul: what does that mean? The expression has lent itself to many things in American society, such as a crafts studio in Long Island, a tattoo/piercing shop in the Hudson Valley of New York, and a gallery in Boulder, Colorado. 

Art and Soul echoes the expression heart and soul, which means without reservations and with the utmost energy and enthusiasm. It also conjures up musical memories of the classic big band pop song “Heart and Soul” composed in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser; it was a hit recording for Larry Clinton and his orchestra with the vocalist Bea Wain, as well as Al Bowlly, Eddy Duchin, the Four Aces, as was the doo wop version by the Cleftones. 

But once you see the word soul you might also think of soul music, and soul food, Soul Train on TV and host Don Cornelius. These of course are linked deeply to the African American cultural experience. 

And it is also at the heart of the Art + Soul Celebration, now in its seventh year at PAMM, the Perez Art Museum Miami. Art + Soul has put a great deal of emphasis on the artistic output and promotion of visual artists of color in the United States, and elsewhere.

The Art + Soul Celebration is an event and fundraiser for the Museum’s Fund for African American Art. The current season at the PAMM features two powerful exhibitions, Meleko Mokgosi: Your Trip to Africa; Polyphonic: Celebrating PAMM’s Fund for African American Art, as well as the upcoming Solidarity & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrid Collection. These all add up to a top-notch, inspirational museum-going experience for anyone fascinated by African and African-American art, and how they influence and complement each other. 

The Art + Soul Celebration helps to publicize the museum’s missions for expanding artistic boundaries and raise awareness among the public of its goals, such as acquiring works by newer artists, including a painting by Theresa Chromati and a mixed media piece by Vaughn Spann, both exploring themes of African American identity.

This year’s event, which took place on February 15th, showcased the culinary work of chef Amaris Jones, who is known for her modern takes on soul food. Entertainment was provided by Guitars Over Guns, a non-profit focused on music education and mentorship for youth, and by Grammy-nominated band Tank and the Bangas, a multi-racial funk-rock band based in New Orleans. Those who attended also enjoyed viewing the exhibitions and found much to explore.

Meleko Mokgosi. Democratic Intuition, Lerato: Philia I, 2016. Two panels: oil on canvas. 96 x 198 1/2 inches. © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

On view from February 27, 2020 through May 30, 2021, Botswana-born painter Mokgosi (who is also an assistant professor at New York University) presents works both ultra-large in scale and more modest, with partial inspiration drawn from the 1966 film Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa) by Peter Kubelka, about an Austrian family on a safari vacation. Mokgosi’s paintings portray everyday people and common objects, while making commentary on the post-colonial experience and political realities in Africa. One of the works included in this show is Democratic Intuition, Lerato: Philia I (2016) which shows three women wearing formal, brightly colored dresses, hats and accessories, with a bull occupying the right-hand half of the canvas. A curious or provocative pairing of subjects? The women and the farm animal all have their dignity.

Meleko Mokgosi. Democratic Intuition, Lex I, 2016. Oil and pigment transfer on canvas. 102 x 2018 inches. © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Another painting shows a man lounging in a folding chair in a living room, looking across the room at a child on the floor– or is he gazing instead at a statue of a naked woman, or at one of the smaller decorative pieces in the room? To his left, taking up about ⅓ of the canvas is another room, with a person hiding behind a curtain. What story or message is teased here?

Kevin Beasley. Untitled (parade), 2016. Housedresses, kaftans, and resin. 87 x 72 x 48 inches. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, museum purchase with funds provided by Jorge M. Pérez, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and PAMM Ambassadors for African American Art. Photo: STUDIO LHOOQ

Polyphonic is a collection of works by a variety of artists, including a subtly moving piece by Kevin Beasley, Untitled (parade), 2016 which presents ten shrouded beings, clothed in colorful outfits; Tschabalala Self, Chopped Cheese (2017), a mixed media illustrative work of a woman in a food store (her hands and eyes the prominent features of her body) and other pieces by Juana Valdes, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden and several other artists. As well, the Solidarity & Solitary collection which opens in April will include pieces from several artists, from the 1940s onward. 

Tschabalala Self. Chopped Cheese, 2017 Acrylic, watercolor, flash, crayon, colored pencil, oil pastel, graphite, hand-colored photocopy, and hand-colored canvas on canvas. 96 x 84 inches. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, museum purchase with funds provided by Jorge M. Pérez, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and PAMM Ambassadors for African American Art. Photo:

Some may wonder why a mainstream contemporary art museum is concentrating so greatly on the artwork and cultural output of a particular group. To compare, the Brooklyn Museum held a six-month exhibition two years ago called Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Currently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is showcasing African art with Sahel: Art and Empires On the Shores of the Sahara, and Wangechi Mutu’s The NewOnes, will Free Us. According to ACASA, the Arts Council of the African Studies Association, there are over 50 major art museums (in the United States and elsewhere) that have collections of African art. As well, there are museums that focus on the art of African Americans, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, but amongst the dozens of African American museums in the US, not all are focused particularly on art. 

In fact, in recent years PAMM has held art exhibitions of artists who represented a wide variety of ethnicities. This season in particular they are concentrating on African American and African artists. Is this novel? Will they continue in this direction? Will they become a destination for African American art, or is this a focus for a year or two?

Perhaps one of the goals PAMM is trying to fulfill is examining themes that young and middle-aged African American artists are exploring. Is the museum focusing more on individual or group identities? What different viewpoints are being uncovered by male and female artists, as well as younger and older artists? 

African American art and African art are a part of a wide world of art overall, but there are certain themes and feelings that are group-specific and worthy of being presented in a major art museum. Kudos to PAMM for placing greater emphasis on this and on these artists.

Polyphonic: Celebrating PAMM’s Fund for African American Art

Ellen Levitt

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