Walking into the tiny art gallery at 1515 14th St., one is transported to the era that made U Street so historic. Black art adorns the walls of the Hemphill gallery, and it feels like home.
The Barnett-Aden Collection is reminiscent of old U Street, once dubbed the “Black Broadway.” The nine blocks along the U Street Corridor were home to black writers, singers and artists who proudly showcased their talent.
Thirty-three pieces of the Barnett-Aden Collection at Hemphill Fine Arts show the same sense of pride. The pieces are bold and contemporary. They reflect the aesthetic of the New Negro from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, leading up to the Civil Rights era, when there came a sense of black confidence and black self-consciousness.
Featuring the work of artists ranging from Elizabeth Catlett to Romare Bearden, “Selections From the Barnett-Aden Collection: A Homecoming Celebration” will be on view through Saturday at Hemphill Fine Arts. The gallery will also present a free panel discussion on the exhibition at 10 a.m.
The collection’s previous home was a private house in Northwest D.C., where James Herring, a Howard University art professor, and Alonzo Aden, a student of Herring’s and curator the University’s Gallery of Art, collaborated to start their own gallery because there were very few galleries that Black artists could display their work. Named after Aden’s mother, Naomi Barnett-Aden and owner of the house at 127 Randolph Place, the gallery provided a homelike atmosphere where black artists could exhibit their works.
Bob Johnson, founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television) picked Jeffery Stewart, professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as curator of the collection. Calling Johnson, a guardian angel of the Barnett-Aden Collection, Stewart stressed the importance of preserving black art and how Johnson saved the collection from being separated and auctioned off.
Stewart picked from about 250 pieces in storage and set to create an overall narrative for the show. Stewart wanted to showcase the evolution of black art in the 20th century and the role of the black collector. Featuring works by Aaron Douglas, John Farrar, Frederick C. Flemister and Archibald John Motley Jr., the selection for the Hemphill gallery is “proud art,” Stewart said. “For example, John Robinson’s self portrait is a proud reflection of self,” the curator explained. “It states, ‘I’ve arrived; I’m someone.’ It has a face of confidence, with a ‘how do you like me now?’ attitude.”
Since Bob Johnson purchased the remnants of the Barnett-Aden Collection from the Florida Education Fund, it has found its way back home to D.C., for a true homecoming.
Hemphill Fine Arts is at 1515 14th St. N.W. (Metro: Dupont Circle) Contact: 202) 234-5601. http://www.hemphillfinearts.com. Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Admission: Free. Public program: On March 7 at 10 a.m., the gallery will present a free panel discussion on the exhibition.