By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
As artists, Ben Jones and Amani Lewis are at different stages in their careers.
At 78, Jones has been an artistic tour de force over his five-decade career. The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many other accolades, he is internationally lauded for his contributions to the arts. Jones has also made more than 90 trips to Cuba over his life, becoming a key connection between the American and Cuban art worlds. He is currently a Professor of Art at New Jersey City University.
In contrast to the longevity of Jones’ career, Amani Lewis is, at 24, about to make their solo debut. Lewis is based in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated in 2016 from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
But for three months this fall, the pair will have their work on display in two separate, highly anticipated exhibits at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center September 13, saw the opening of Resurgence – Rise Again: The Art of Ben Jones and Amani Lewis: Subjective Nature.
Resurgence is a collection of eight large-scale works from the last decade of Jones’ career. The exhibition is his call to action for young people to rise up in opposition to authoritarian leaders and corrupt business practices.
“The title of the show is ‘Resurgence’ because we need to make sure the young people are paying attention and that the young people are organizing themselves to vote in this next election,” Jones says.
The first works shown in the exhibition come from Jones’ “Wallpaper” series. As the name suggests, these works are created to resemble wallpaper, large in size and scale, and covered in repeating patterns. They demonstrate Jones’ prowess in multiple artistic media, combining painting, printing, and digital art techniques to create rich textures.
“I started this wallpaper series because wallpaper is usually in the interior of homes,” Jones said. “Everyday, you have to go into your home, so you’re confronted by the things in your house.”
Jones’ wallpaper series takes the idea of being confronted by the things in your home to the political level. The image of the President appears in several of the works, as do logos of companies like BP, Shell, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s.
These more literal images are juxtaposed against a variety of symbols, from Biblical imagery like the fish, representing life, as well as references to various African cultures, recalling humankind’s African origins. Printed poems are often also incorporated in these wallpaper works, creating multi-faceted works that demand the attention of the viewer.
“You find with classical music, with jazz, with classical theater, the different layers,” said Jones. “Layering is another way of getting deeper, not just passing by and glancing. You want to have a relationship with it.”
Each work espouses a progressive message, and sometimes several messages simultaneously. Jones’ early wallpaper works promote protecting the Earth, incorporating poetry with environmental messages, as well as references to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in American waters.
Other works champion racial justice and heavily critique institutional brutality against people of color. His 2016 installation, titled “Trayvon Martin,” features dozens of photos of Martin, overlaid with painted symbols and pleas for justice in several languages. In front of the installation is a floor mat, with flowers on one side, guns on the other. This represents the artist’s question of whether America will choose peace over gun culture.
The largest work of the exhibition is also Jones’ newest, making its first public appearance in Resurgence – Rise Again. Titled “The Big Picture,” the work represents the myriad ways American culture and politics influence our day-to-day lives, but also implores the viewer to reflect and work toward solutions, particularly on humanity’s effect on the climate.
“We’re bombarded by so many things, so you have to meditate, you have to reflect,” Jones said.
Opening alongside Jones’ work is Amani Lewis: Subjective Nature, a mini-retrospective of Lewis’ work. There are echoes of Jones’ artistic style in Lewis’ work, particularly in their use of layering and combination of digital and traditional art skills. While Jones’ work places more emphasis on the traditional, Lewis showcases digital art through collage and photo manipulation techniques.
“What is so unique about Amani’s work is their use of photography and digitizing and then printing it on canvas, but then also working that canvas,” said Kilolo Luckett, curator of visual arts at August Wilson Center.
This combination of techniques is seen most prominently in Lewis’ newest series, eleven portraits of friends and family members, titled “Negroes in the Trees.” Each portrait is based on a photograph of the subject, manipulated in the digital realm, then printed on canvas and manipulated further, incorporating paint, glitter, even clothing.
Lewis’ use of layering in “Negroes in the Trees” forces the viewer to linger on each painting, similar to Jones’ work, but towards different ends. While Jones uses layering to reveal connections between ideas, Lewis’ layering is meant to reveal the humanity of their subjects, something the artist believes is often overlooked or erased by American society at large.
“Subjective Nature” also shines a light on the work Lewis does with other artists. Lewis, alongside good friend and fellow artist Murjoni Merriweather, founded CLR’D, a collective of artists that focus on the experiences of people of color. A portion of “Subjective Nature” is dedicated to the work of artists in CLR’D.
Featured prominently in this section is a series of six sculptures by Merriweather. Each sculpture is in the image of a black person from the neck up, most crafted from ceramics. The standout of the series, “Braided Shawty,” is an image of a black woman constructed entirely of braided synthetic hair.
“It’s a reflection about her upbringing, her mother braiding her hair,” Luckett said.
Whether reflecting on childhood, friendship, hatred, or the Earth itself, the works of both Lewis and Jones are both specific and universal, straightforward but deeply complex, driven by a philosophy best summed up by Ben Jones and one of his favorite quotes.
“Jayne Cortez wrote in a poem: ‘Find your own voice and use it, use your own voice and find it.”