Forget the Statue of Liberty, never mind that Boeing 707.
According to Cecil Fergerson, guest curator of "Reflections: African-American Art," now at the City of Brea Gallery, Western historians have accomplished a feat that even David Copperfield might envy: They've made Egypt disappear from Africa.
"When [slave traders] brought the slaves here, they were able to eradicate all cultural ties after three generations," said Fergerson, 64. "They did this simply by taking children from the family at birth, so you couldn't pass down things.
"With the civil-rights struggle and the need to identify with their ancestors, African Americans started to look to Africa, to use its symbols.
"Egypt was very important for its sophisticated contribution to history. But Western writers had taken Egypt out of Africa. It was Egypt and Africa. The only part of Africa for us to see was Edgar Rice Burroughs and 'Tarzan.' "
Stanley Wilson's mixed-media "Will the Real Egyptians Please Stand" series and Gregory Chaney's sculpture, "Know Thyself"--a bust showing obvious Negroid features in an ancient Egyptian headdress--are among 75 works by 27 Southern California artists depicting the political, social and economic lives of African Americans.
Other works on display range from tiny paper masks by Howard Marshall to a room-size mixed-media installation by Kayren Lyle, "Nat King Cole/We Meditate at His Lotus Feet and Walk Three Times Around the Mountain." Sculptures include Charles Dickson's plastic and urethane foam works, "Blossom" and "Uprooted," and John Offutt's "Wade in the Water." Among paintings are Robin A. Strayhorn's "Masculinities II" and Toni Love's "Only in America."
Fergerson spent 38 years in various capacities at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and has curated African American art at numerous venues for 20 years. He lamented the fact that when it comes to African American art, many art critics write about the people who create the art instead of the art itself.
Of course, it would seem a show called "Reflections: African-American Art" would encourage that kind of thinking.
"They don't let us in other shows," Fergerson said. "We have no choice. . . . [We're] set aside as a special group.
"We are more American than a whole lot of people in America--our history here goes back to the slave days. We've got some brand-new people from Europe who haven't been here but a minute, and they want to call themselves Americans, whereas we are African Americans.
"I refer to white people as European Americans," he said. "Put them into a pigeonhole. But [I'm sure] they would turn that around into some kind of racism. They would call that hate."
According to Fergerson, racism prevented African Americans from developing artistic skills until recently. Early U.S. black artists, such as Baltimore-based Joshua Johnston (1765-1830), produced works that did not reflect personal experience; he was able to work because he painted portraits and worked cheap.
During the Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, a public art project, proved a boon for African American artists. But before World War II, blacks were not allowed to enroll at most major colleges, and Fergerson highly doubts that many African Americans were involved with art off-campus.
Almost any opportunity to provide exposure now is welcome.
"These artists are happy just to have something in the show, despite the fact that it's in Orange County," Fergerson said. "Orange County is another kind of community in terms of black and white. I had some mixed emotions about doing this exhibition. But I'm glad I did it now.
"Art has a way of bringing people together, even just for a moment. 'The way you do the things you do'--I borrowed that [song lyric] from the Temptations. When you come from that perspective, it takes away those other emotions."
* What: "Reflections: African-American Art."
* When: Through March 1. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, noon-5 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays, noon-8 p.m.
* Where: City of Brea Gallery, Brea Civic & Cultural Center, 1 Civic Center Circle.
* Whereabouts: Take the Orange (57) Freeway to the Imperial (90) Highway exit and head west. Turn right on Randolph Avenue, right on Birch Street and right on Civic Center Circle.
* Wherewithal: Adults, $1. Under 18, free. Thursdays, 5-8 p.m., Brea residents free.
* Where to call: (714) 990-7730.