There's a powerfully imagined but unassuming still life in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's "The Soul of a City" exhibit. Two plump green pears and a knife rest on a reflective surface. It would be like thousands of other nicely painted but otherwise unremarkable fruit-salad still lifes if it wasn't for the inclusion of a handwritten note apologizing because there wasn't enough money to buy three pears.
Michael Rodgers' still life is especially representative of a sometimes staggering exhibit that collects more than 100 works by African-American artists assembled from several public and private collections in Memphis. It blends beauty and tradition with history and the politics of struggle.
Brooks' chief curator Marina Pacini describes the show as an "epic" three years in the making and surveying 10 essential themes: landscape, genre, still life, portraiture, folk art, abstraction, religion, music, contemporary art, and the civil rights movement. "The Soul of a City" mixes folk art with fine art and includes seldom-seen sculptures from Memphis' "Voodoo Village." It showcases younger and lesser-known regional artists alongside known quantities like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.
In addition to a preview party on Friday, the Brooks is hosting a Saturday afternoon concert with Rev. John Wilkins, who plays guitar in the North Mississippi hill country tradition of his father, Rev. Robert Wilkins, author of the blues standard "Prodigal Son," made famous by the Rolling Stones.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Brooks is launching the "Soul on Film" series June 14th, with a screening of the 1972 concert film Wattstax. Other films include Thunder Soul, an inspiring, musically exciting documentary about the often-sampled Kashmere High School Stage Band, and Mr. Dial Has Something To Say, a portrait of visionary artist Thornton Dial and a searing indictment of art-ghetto terms like folk art.
"The Soul of a City: Memphis Collects African American Art" at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, June 9th-September 2nd. brooksmuseum.org