“Know what a man wants on his 81st birthday?” multifaceted Melvin Van Peebles asked a journalist the day before turning 81 on Aug. 21.
Be that as it may, the legendary filmmaker (the pioneering 1971 blaxpoitation classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Watermelon Man) and influential recording artist (spoken word/jazz albums like 1969 debut Brer Soul are considered harbingers of hip-hop) is celebrating with his visual art debut Sept. 19 at Harlem’s Strivers Gardens Gallery.
Van Peebles’s mixed-media art will be the centerpiece of eMerge 2.0: Melvin Van Peebles & Artists On The Cusp, an exhibit to run through Nov. 7.
Also a playwright, actor, director, novelist, journalist, and Broadway composer, Van Peebles, who was the subject of the acclaimed 2005 documentary How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It), will anchor the exhibit with "Ex-Voto Monochrome (A Ghetto Mother’s Prayer)," his mixed-media piece that explores the intersection between violence, economic disenfranchisement, womanhood and faith.
Also to be shown are noteworthy pieces from Van Peebles' private collection, including two rarely-seen paintings by the late George Helton, whose late wife Isabel Taylor Helton designed Van Peebles' museum-like Midtown Manhattan apartment—home to the paintings, illustrations, and sculptures he's completed over the years.
“It’s not quite true that it’s my visual art debut,” said Van Peebles over coffee in a room next to his sculptures and paintings including "Ex Voto Monochrome." He recounted his visual arts endeavors as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, his work as a portrait painter in Mexico following a stint in the Air Force, and of course, his filmmaking.
“What are the movies? Visual arts!” he declared, adding, “It’s called survival: I do nine zillion things. I can’t help it!”
One of those things now is supporting “the advancement of some really amazing new talent,” he said, citing the work of the other exhibiting artists Joseph Cavalieri, JaSon E. Auguste, Greg Frederick, Laura Gadson, Josh Goldstein, David Hollier, Clara K Johnson, Kimberly Mayhorn, Beau McCall, Andre Woolery and Misra Walker.
“One of the nice things about doing this exhibit is that I saw this phenomenal artwork by unknown artists,” said Van Peebles. “That’s why I’m donating my piece—to help them get recognition. So many of these people need exposure, and if I can help a little bit, good, good, good.”
Van Peebles’ "Ex-Voto Monochrome," he noted, represents a prayer (ex-voto is a votive offering to a divinity) for the safety of a child. Shaded in monochromatic blue and white, it nevertheless features a red cloth strip running across the left side, ominously suggesting blood.
"It sends a prayer to heaven, hoping that nothing happens to the child,” said Van Peebles. The painting’s frame has wings to help deliver the prayer, and it's tilted as a nod to the artist’s experience as a pilot, “because a plane takes off at an angle.”
Other Van Peebles pieces in his apartment include "Ancient Tenement Entertainment Center," which evokes an old fireplace; "Roof-Raff," essentially a skylight replete with pigeon poop, that opens up as a large table; "Those Were 'The days' My Friend We Thought '....They'd Never End,'” the rear end of an old Volkswagen van that “got stuck in the wall,” Van Peebles said, when he was “parking it in the apartment”; and "Jesus (21st Century Version) Working His 'Fish & Loaves Magic' On 'The Multitude,'” a hot dog in a bun that opens up into a file cabinet.
Admire them, but don’t ask him how eMerge 2.0: Melvin Van Peebles & Artists On The Cusp came about.
“It’s disrespectful to ask!” he responded, playfully. “I’m 81! How the hell do I remember?”
But he will relate that his life and career are defined by “the constant pursuit of new forms of culture and self-expression.” He added: "I am excited to finally share publicly another passion of mine, visual art, while lending support to the advancement of some really amazing new talent.”
Van Peebles’ exhibit is a joint presentation of the Strivers gallery—a venue for visual artists to promote Harlem’s cultural, economic and social renaissance--and Souleo Enterprises. Now in its second year, eMerge celebrates the future of contemporary art.
"With Melvin Van Peebles as this year's keystone we are honoring his spirit of reinvention, from the continual transformation of one’s life to the re-purposing of everyday materials into cultural, political and social statements,” says journalist Souleo, founder of the eponymous Souleo Enterprises.
Van Peebles will participate in a Q&A at the exhibition on Oct 6.
Meanwhile, the artist, who performed his unique spoken-word singing last month at the Cutting Room with a jazz band backing, will return to the venue in November. His last movie, the semi-autobiographical Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008), was accompanied by a graphic novel featuring stills from the film, original drawings and dialog.
He hopes his heavily orchestrated opera adaptation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (The Hood Opera), which he produced in Paris in 2010 with an American band and vocalists, will get a U.S. premiere.
“I read the other day they’re making movies into opera,” he said. “Maybe someone will pick it up.”
Incidentally, Van Peebles, who also has homes in Los Angeles and Paris, has received the French Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest award.
“I got awards coming out of…,” he said, not bothering to complete the thought.
“I just go around keeping on keeping on.”
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