Alvin Ailey & National Gallery of Art

Posted in DanceMusicVisual Arts on Jan 16, 2011

In addition to his penetrating words, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence was an essential part of his strength and grace. He said: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

It seems to me that art is one of the ultimate nonviolent acts: powerful and empowering; providing insight and inspiring growth; able to convey a singular idea while allowing each observer to have their own relationship to it.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the upcoming Black History month in February, I wanted to celebrate Black art and artists so I asked the inimitable Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the treasured National Gallery of Art, and a very accomplished Associate Professor of Music from Duke University to share their thoughts on two questions:

What piece of art by a black artist has had the most significant impact on you and why?
Who are some of today’s black artists that we should know?

I’m so happy to have the enlightening words of Alvin Ailey’s Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, National Gallery of Art’s Ruth Fine, and Duke University professor Anthony Kelley. As you know, Mom Culture is always for you, but if you share one post with your kids, this might be the one.



Thoughts from Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Co-Director of Arts in Education & Community Programs; National Director of AileyCamp; former principal Alvin Ailey dancer (1986-1998)

What piece of art by a black artist has had the most significant impact on you and why?

Alvin Ailey’s Revelations - because it speaks to everyone who sees it, regardless of age, sex, race and it touches the human spirit in ways that few things do.

(“Revelations” is Alvin Ailey’s signature choreographic work and one of the most important modern dance pieces. Through a series of dances set to African American spirituals, “Revelations” follows African American history from slavery to freedom. As the Dance company’s own website states: “Alvin Ailey said that one of America’s richest treasures was the cultural heritage of the African-American – ’sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.’ This enduring classic is a tribute to that heritage and to Ailey’s genius.” “Revelations” was called “modern dance’s greatest hit” by The New York Times. In the video below, you’ll see excerpts of Alvin Ailey himself performing Revelations.)

robert battle, alvin ailey american dance theater artistic director designate

Who are some of today’s black artists that we should know?

*Robert Battle (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s artistic director designate, succeeding Judith Jamison in July 2011)
*Sidney Poitier (actor)
*Bill T. Jones (co-founder and artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company)
*Desmond Richardson (artistic director and co-founder of Complexions Contemporary Ballet)
*Stevie Wonder


Thoughts from Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art, National Gallery of Art, Washington

What piece of art by a black artist has had the most significant impact on you and why?
I can’t indicate one piece.  The art of Romare Bearden overall has had the greatest impact on me because I spent so much time with it during the course of working on our 2003 exhibition of his work (The Art of Romare Bearden). Obviously, I admired the depth of its intellectual and emotional content before I proposed doing the exhibition.

Romare Bearden, "Prelude to Troy (No. 2)," 1974 (via National Gallery of Art website -

Romare Bearden, "Tomorrow I May Be Far Away," 1967 (via National Gallery of Art website,

Also, paintings by Norman Lewis such as Redneck Birth and Rednecks, that correspond in time to the Freedom Rides of 1961, strike me as among the most powerful visual manifestations of that extraordinary moment in our history.

Norman Lewis, "Redneck Birth" 1961 (via

Who are some of today’s black artists that we should know?

The Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia, founded by artist Allan Edmund in the early 1970s, has produced a range of work by artists of diverse ethnic backgrounds, including black artists such as Sam Gilliam and Margo Humphrey. (Brandywine Workshop is a really great place that supports the work of multi-ethnic, under-served artists.)

I continue to be interested in the photographs of Frank Stewart, who documented Bearden during his lifetime, but has done much less well known work in Africa and Cuba.

photo by Frank Stewart (via

In music, at the moment I listen a lot to Marcus Printup playing trumpet.


Thoughts from Anthony M. Kelley, Associate Professor of the Practice of Music
Duke University Department of Music
What piece of art by a black artist has had the most significant impact on you and why?
Olly Wilson’s musical composition, “Sometimes,” had the most impact upon me when I first heard it in a “Duke Encounters With the Music of Our Time” concert (curated by Prof. Stephen Jaffe.) The composition, and its presentation performed by the now late tenor William Brown, encapsulates some of the most powerful aspects of African-American music-making, looking simultaneously at past, present, and future using the age-old spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” as its aesthetic springboard.

(“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sung by the bass singer/actor, Paul Robeson)

There are few things on this earth more powerful than the a cappella solo tenor voice delivering fragments – some recognizable, some transformed for maximum effect- while occasionally surrounded by haunting, futuristic electronic soundscapes and transfigured versions of the melody. It offered me a vision of how music has tied our culture together for ages, and how I might find ways to reaffirm my own roots after years of musical training steeped in presumptions of a European hierarchy.

Who are some of today’s black artists that we should know?
* Any Marsalis (with particular attention to Ellis, Wynton, and Branford)
* Composers like T.J. Anderson, Olly Wilson, Ahmad Jamal, William Banfield, Alicia Keys, Bobby McFerrin (see video below of “Say Ladeo” from McFerrin’s Grammy-nominated album Vocabularies), Janelle Monae, and Herbie Hancock