At the end of the 20th century, research and collecting in the field of African-American arts and crafts still has a long way to go. That's a major lesson to be learned from "Sankofa & the
Maryland Tradition," an instructive but spotty two-part exhibit just opened at the Maryland Historical Society.
One part, called "Sankofa" (after an African proverb meaning "retrieve the past to go forward") is devoted to selections from the collection of Derrick Joshua Beard, who has been collecting for less than a decade and yet has found pieces that originated from the Northeast to the far west. The other part is devoted to objects made in Maryland, from the historical society's and public and private collections.
Far the strongest part of the Beard selection is the section of works from the South. Furniture from the major North Carolina maker Thomas Day mingles with pottery from South Carolina and a range of individual pieces such as a rare pre-Civil War drum, a gourd fiddle and a painted church altar table from the late 18th century.
Other sections of the country are less well-represented. There are some interesting objects on view, whether a bed patented in Cincinnati in 1833, an elegant 1840s daybed from New Orleans, or a turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania strip quilt that shows both African and European-American origins. But these pieces only whet our appetite for more.
It's no reflection on Mr. Beard that his collection is still in the formative stage. He began relatively recently and, as he has said, it can be extremely difficult to document African-American pieces because often the history simply isn't there.
The Maryland section of the show also reflects this problem. Some fascinating things have turned up: Among others, a spectacular wooden chandelier made for a church in Clear Spring; 19th century samplers and a needlework picture from the school run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence; and an imposing Masonic armchair made about 1876 for the Mount Lebanon Lodge No. 22 in Baltimore.
And Joshua Johnson, America's first African-American professional painter, who worked in Baltimore from about 1795 to 1825, is well-represented with seven works.
But the 30 or so art and craft objects in this part of the show are heavily supplemented by documents, pictures and texts relating aspects of African-American life. The historical society has done its usual thorough job in putting together a coherent account of the subject, but this show attests to how much more collecting and study there is to be done.
The society acknowledges that with a text that calls this show a "work in progress." In many cases, when a museum has presented an exhibition on a subject, it doesn't do another one for a long time, up to decades. Let's hope that's not the case here, that this worthwhile if imperfect show acts as a spur to intense research in the field, and that in, say, five years or so it will be possible to mount a larger show on this subject.
What: "Sankofa & the Maryland Tradition"
Where: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Beard Collection through Dec. 30; Maryland exhibition through March 3
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors and students, free for children under 12
% Call: (410) 685-3750.