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Artists and Artworks of Color : As Appreciation Crosses Ethnic Boundaries, Annual Show Draws Wide Audience at Mall


"This is bad, " the man says, admiring the art on display at Fox Hills Mall.

The piece that has caught his eye is a striking ceramic face by Dominique, one of more than 80 mostly African-American artists represented in the Ninth Annual Artists' Salute to Black History Month, which continues through today at the Culver City shopping center.

Featuring everything from an all-black version of "The Last Supper" to sepia-toned photos in a series called "Coloured Nostalgia," the exhibit and sale include original work and reproductions by African-American artists whose work is increasingly being sought by collectors.

Among the best-known is Varnette P. Honeywood, who does bright, abstract paintings and cut-paper collages of scenes from African and African-American life. Honeywood, who is from Los Angeles, has become something of a celebrity since her work was featured on "The Cosby Show."

A former teacher, Honeywood, who lives in the Crenshaw District, remembers when most museums and galleries were indifferent to her work. Her first boosters, she recalls, were frame shops. Now in a position to choose her venues, she says that she continues to do the Fox Hills show and one other mall show each year because it brings her work before an audience, particularly a black audience, that she might otherwise not reach.

Unlike collectors, she said, "the general public has to find art where they can." At the mall, she said, "the setting is very informal, and people can enjoy art in a very noncommittal way." Such shows have an educational function and they also make good business sense. "It is a shopping mall, so, on the marketing end, you do think of making purchases."

Honeywood is assisted at her display by her sister and business partner Stephanie (a poet) and by her mother, Lovie, who reveals that the only other artist in the family was one of her uncles, who did graveyard sculpture in Magnolia, Miss.

Self-taught artist Barbara Wesson initiated the Fox Hills show and sale almost a decade ago. "My prime reason for doing it was to bring some recognition and exposure to minority artists," said the artist, whose works are admired by Arsenio Hall, among others. Like many of the other artists, she sees the familiar, low-anxiety atmosphere of a shopping mall as an excellent place for people to encounter works of art.

Looking back over the decade, Wesson said, there has been a shift away from the angry images--portraits of Malcolm X and raised fists--that were once popular. "People have been saturated with the imagery," she said. "People are requesting landscapes and seascapes," albeit landscapes and seascapes by African-American artists, she said. Less concerned about the iconography, African-American art buyers are responding more to the color and beauty of the work, she said.

"Oh, it's beautiful!" said teacher Eloise Hunt of View Park, entranced by the bright, Africa-inspired silhouettes of artist Kathleen A. Wilson.

When the artist approaches Hunt, the teacher asks an informed question about the technique used to achieve a particular effect. Hunt said she usually buys something at the Fox Hills show. Wilson's work ranges in price from $25 for an unsigned poster to $800 for one of her original serigraphs.

"I think the appreciation of art is growing so much with people of color," Hunt said. As to why, she speculated: "We've been working on our self-esteem for a long time, and we're finally beginning to appreciate ourselves." Hunt says she plans to return and bring her teen-age son to the show.

Artist Wilson, who grew up in Ypsilanti, Mich., and went to Pepperdine on a fine arts scholarship, lives in View Park. "I've never been to Africa," she confessed, although she clearly travels there regularly in her mind. Wilson said one of her great pleasures is meeting people who have been touched by her work. During the recent National Black Artists Festival in Atlanta, a woman fan came up and pressed the artist to her formidable bosom. "She had every piece I ever published," Wilson said.

Describing herself as a cheerleader for the artists, Joan Murray of Baldwin Hills thinks the Fox Hills show is a valuable corrective to destructive stereotypes about black life.

"Every time you look up there's something negative," Murray said. "But there's so much that's positive that goes on in the African-American community--people who maintain their homes, people who support the homeless, who support young children and the schools. The majority of African-American life is positive, and the art signifies that."

As Murray points out, there are important black art collectors as well as talented black artists. "If you go to Harlem or Watts or Palm Springs, you will find there are African-Americans who collect a variety of art because we live in a multiracial, multiethnic world."

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