Online Black History Month Exhibition: Voices of African American Artists

Malcolm Mobutu Smith’s ceramic works are inspired by art from graffiti, comic books and his passion for hip-hop and jazz. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Mobutu Smith

By Douglas M. Campbell

To celebrate Black History Month, the McDonough Museum of Art will highlight a variety of African American artists online. Claudia Berlinski, the museum director, curated the month-long exhibit. 

“Each weekday I will be featuring a new artist — a Black artist — on our social media platforms. That would be Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” Berlinski said.

Berlinski did a similar online exhibition during the summer called “Black Lives Matter, Black Artists Matter.” The exhibition highlighted around 60 African American artists, including Malcolm Mobutu Smith, a ceramic and drawing artist, and Mike Gibson, a topiary artist whose work can be seen in a slideshow on the museum’s website.

Improvisation of 3D objects guide Smith’s ceramic works of cups, scoops, vessels, vases and illustrations. His work is inspired by art from graffiti, comic books and his passion for hip-hop and jazz.

“Graffiti art was something that I started to get engrossed by even as I was deciding to commit myself to the academic study of fine art in junior high school. Those two things sort of came together at once and I was a participant as a hip-hop practitioner,” Smith said.

He found the ever-increasing culture surrounding hip-hop and graffiti art fascinating as an artistic expression for an under-represented group.

“These daring young people inventing styles and very cohesive styles of drawing that they would then risk life and limb to go do out in public space and still have all of this energy and skill represented in the hip-hop culture,” Smith said. 

Gibson, a local Youngstown artist, found his creative spark at the age of seven when his father taught him how to trim bushes. His love for the craft solidified years later when his father introduced him to the art of African American topiary artist Pearl Fryar.

“After he showed me his work, it was like ‘Mind. blown.’And that’s when my eyes opened and my mind opened a little bit more and I started getting a little bit more creative,” Gibson said.

To bring more beauty to his hometown, Gibson’s mission was to sculpt and create 330 structures in honor of the area code. It took him six years to reach the goal.

“The mindset that I have going into a new project is similar to someone that is trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I stare at a bush and I’m seeing and putting together until I like the outcome and then I’m able to do it,” Gibson said.

Smith thinks with the work displayed online, there should be something for everybody, with deep histories to learn from different cultures and lessons from now. 

“We got all different types of mediums displayed here, we are talking about high-level painters, sculptors — mixed media artists of all types. Many of them are people I looked to as superheroes myself, as mentors from afar. I’m just thrilled to be a part of the group,” Smith said.

Along with the social media posts and online slideshow, the museum will also show a documentary called “The Foreigners Home” at noon every Wednesday in February, at the lecture hall. 

“It is about an hour long, it is a documentary about Toni Morrison, who is a Black writer. She was a guest curator at the Louvre in Paris in 2006, for an exhibition they had there called ‘The Foreigners Home,’” Berlinski said. 

The documentary is a conversation with the artist as she discusses the creation of her work. Berlinski had bigger plans for the film’s presentation at the museum. 

“It was actually recommended to me a year ago by an artist. I contacted the filmmakers and we talked about doing a big screening last spring where the filmmakers would be here and talk about the film and answer some questions and we would be able to have a full audience,” Berlinski said.

Due to the pandemic, those original plans were canceled and the film was incorporated into the museum’s plans for Black History Month. 

Seating in the lecture hall is limited to 24 people and masks are required.