Benny Andrews (American, 1930-2006)
Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 36 in.
Mourners is a vivid example of the poignant humanism expressed by the artist, writer, and activist Benny Andrews. One of ten children born to Georgia sharecroppers, he was the first in his family to graduate from high school. Both sides of the family represented mixed ethnicities, but in the segregated South they were alike regarded as African Americans. Andrews would embrace this identity in his art, gaining from and contributing to a strong tradition of storytelling, social protest, and respect for the commonplace--all characteristics shared by black artists such as Romare Bearden, Palmer Hayden, and Jacob Lawrence.
Trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Andrews moved to New York in
1958. He balanced a studio practice with teaching, attaining full professorship at
Queens College of the City University of New York in 1988. Beginning in
the late 1960s, he became involved in protesting the under-representation of both African American and women artists in such venerable New York institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. A cofounder of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in 1969, he frequently picketed both museums in order to publicize their apparent indifference to artists of color. In the early 1970s, Andrews developed an art-instruction program for the New York state prison system. These activities coincided with a burgeoning of social-protest movements during that period, which gave him further impetus to air his grievances and advocate for reforms. From 1982 to 1984, Andrews, recognized both as an inspired leader and a skilled artist, directed the National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Program.
From the mid-1960s on, Andrews portrayed scenes from and memories of his youth. Often, activities or incidents from his rural Southern background overlapped in a dreamscape of contemporary American life. Mourners recalls the religious practice of the Plainview Baptist Church, just outside Madison, Georgia, which he attended with his family. Projecting both pathos and stoic dignity, the artist depicts two women mourners whose expressions of grief and loss are counterbalanced by a cathartic and typically boisterous celebration of life characteristic of black Baptist funerals. According to Andrews, "This poor community of African Americans, oppressed through segregation and lacking many of the necessities for a decent life, could find relief in only one place, the church." (1)
--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art
1. Benny Andrews, "Artist’s Statement: The 'Revival Series'", The Revival Series by Benny Andrews, exh. brochure (New York: Bill Hodges
Gallery, 1995), n.p.