By: A. M. Weaver
The impetus behind “Soul Inspiration” is to illuminate and educate a new audience to some of the most stellar African American leaders in Philadelphia history. While teaching middle school, John Abner discovered his students were not aware of the accomplishments of black leaders throughout America’s history. As a response to a generation’s need for role models and concrete information about black men in America, John Abner conceived the exhibit “Soul Inspiration”.
“Soul Inspiration” features the work of six black male artists active within the Philadelphia art scene. Varying drastically in style and approach, their works are inspired by or portray the lives of black leaders: Richard Allen; James Forten; William Still; Paul Robeson; Cecil B. Moore and Leon Sullivan, all active between the 18th and 21st centuries.
Rev. Richard Allen and James Forten were born shortly before the American Revolution. They were dedicated to the elevation of blacks in American society and the Abolitionist Movement. Richard Allen in 1794 founded the first independent denomination church in America, Mother Bethel, African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, which served as a site for the Underground Railroad. Allen in his latter years worked for the abolition of slavery, as did James Forten. Forten became a prominent businessman at the forefront of the sail making industry and deeply committed to the abolition of slavery via his published works in the Liberator and membership in the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Mtukufu Mtumaini-El ’s work on paper is reminiscent of a stained glass window. Richard Allen’s silhouette, with light markings for features, formulates the central element in the composition. Allen’s name in emboldened letters frame the silhouette and Mother Bethel is written in cursive writing in the lower half of the work. This cut out work is bold in its simplicity and symbolism.
John Abner tackles the history of James Forten by positioning abstracted forms into a puzzle like design. These graphic colorful elements cascade across triangular pieces of wood. Forten’s business in making sails peaked Abner’s imagination, and his shaped wooden supports mimic this form.
Willis “Nomo” Humphrey visually documents the life of William Still, a profitable businessman and freeman, who earned the title of conductor of the Underground Railroad. Humphrey accomplishes this with a portrait of Stills, in which he graphs text from Still’s 1872 publication, the Underground Railroad, across the visage of the portrait. This book chronicled the stories of those who passed through the railroad under Still’s aegis. Included in the painting are waves of clouds that give way to a night sky. Humphrey incorporates the big dipper to signify a song particular to slaves on route to freedom in the North, which was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
Born at the turn of the 20th century, Paul Robeson was an outspoken voice against imperialism and fascism. As an athlete, thespian and lawyer, Robeson excelled; yet it was his career as an actor and singer that won him acclaim in the United States and abroad. Later his career would be thwarted. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted as a communist. Ernel Martinez tackles the representation of Robeson’s complex life, using quotidian materials, zippers, can bottoms and religious tracks, in collages. In a suite of five works, his palette of muted tones and black combine to formulate a dramatic impact, leaning toward the monumental.
Through the 1960s and 70s, two leaders in Philadelphia, who were stalwart pillars of the black community, Cecil B. Moore and Leon Sullivan, sought improvement in the lives of Black Philadelphians. Moore was a lawyer and no nonsense advocate, who fought for civil equities via the political arena. With the support of the North Philadelphia working class, he ran an independent campaign, winning a seat in city council in 1975. Sullivan, a Baptist minister fostered community and economic development and entrepreneurship for blacks. Through cooperative economic strategies, he spearheaded the building of Progress Plaza at 1500 N. Broad Street and was an anti-apartheid activist, who worked to influence large corporations to divest in South Africa.
Keir Johnston’s sculpture, Cecil B. Moore, is made of hammered soda cans stapled to a tree trunk. The trunk signifies the strength and power Moore welded in Philadelphia politics especially the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People); nails protruding from the sculpture, perhaps, represent his tenacious spirit. Borrowing lessons from Kongo N’kisi figurines, the nails in these sculptures signify a judgment or enforcement of an oath.
The life of Leon Sullivan and a of inner city life are represented in Leroy Johnson’s diptych, Tribute to Leon Sullivan. In this collaged work a picture of Sullivan forms the apex of a triangular element in the composition. At the base, black children look upward against a field of row houses, old people sitting on stoops and directly behind Sullivan is a photo of an integrated classroom. Desegregation was a pertinent issue during this era.
Through abstract means, signs and symbols, “Soul Inspiration” conveys aspects of the lives of six African American men who definitively influenced Philadelphia history. Ranging from William Still’s leadership within the Underground Railroad system to the civic endeavors of Leon Sullivan and his acclaim for cooperative economic strategies, “Soul Inspiration” is a testimony to the efforts of individuals, who worked diligently for black liberation and self-sufficiency.