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Portrait of the Weusi Artists

It was the 1960s in Harlem. The civil rights movement was

hurtling along. Black was beautiful, women were trying cornrows and naturals,

men dashikis, and writers and artists were creating new ways to interpret and

reflect their lives. Out of this ferment emerged a group of artists who called

themselves the Weusi Artists Collective. They were dedicated to folding

elements of African art into the fruit of their experiences as

African-Americans, and to bringing art to their own community. They plucked

their name from Swahili, in which weusi means blackness.

Nearly half a century later, on a rainy Friday in February, eight Weusi

artists, including some of the collective's founders, gathered at the African

American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead. They were there to install their

paintings and sculptures in the first major Weusi retrospective since 1995 -

about 150 pieces created between the 1960s and the present. "Weusi Collective:

Resurrection III," in which the work of eight men and two women is represented,

has its opening reception Sunday.

To be sure, the group has changed: One artist used a walker, and a few

needed help lifting pictures up high. But their artwork still popped and

pulsated with vibrant colors and bold images. A swirl of lines and bright hues

depicted a gathering of age-old prophets on one canvas. Black and white

children played in a riot of colors on another. Proud African faces and

abstract African masks figure in other paintings, prints and sculptures.

Powerful artwork

The Weusi were among the first African-American artists who "came together

to create politically conscious artwork. ... They found an issue, our

identity," said David Byer-Tyre, the museum's director and the exhibit's

curator. They haven't stopped, and their artwork continues to be powerful, he

added: "They had a lot to say."

During a lunch break, the artists sat around a table crowded with takeout

containers and marveled at their group's longevity. They all still make art and

many teach. When they get together it's mainly for socializing.

"We're a family," said Ademola Olugebefola, 66, whose prints and paintings

have been widely published and collected. "I guess this means we were meant to

be together," said Okoe Pyatt, 88, of Harlem, who makes multimedia collages.

The collective came together around 1965 - exact dates are hard to pin down

- from another group, The Twentieth Century Creators, which had about 50

members and held outdoor art shows in Harlem. Leaders of the Creators, which

later dissolved, wanted to go more mainstream, but the new collective was

determined to stay community-based, said Olugebefola. Eight artists formed the

core group, which soon grew to 15. With comings and goings over the years, it's

stayed around that. And it has stayed committed.

"Art is our life," said Otto Neals, 77, of Brooklyn, one of the Weusi

founders. His work is in, among other places, the Smithsonian, the Ghana

National Museum, Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Oprah Winfrey's private

collection.

MLJ Johnson, 60, one of the few Weusi members with a formal art education,

said he often felt misunderstood at New York University and the other schools

he attended. When he joined the group, "the loneliness I felt at the beginning

of my career began to dissipate," he said, and he learned to express "the

congruence in message, image and life experience that is basically what artists

do." He often uses wild hues - green hair, pink skin - for both black and

white people, a commentary on our perceptions about color, he said. One

painting depicts a black woman primping before a mirror who sees her image as

white.

"A beautiful thing"

"We recognized a kinship. ... It was a beautiful thing," said Emmett

Wigglesworth, 74, who has made intricate African-themed murals for a Brooklyn

public school, Kings County Hospital and Brooklyn's Union Street subway.

In the early days, the artists regularly taught each other techniques and

prodded each other's creativity. It was a "life-altering experience," recalled

Olugebefola, who lives in Harlem but grew up in the Amsterdam Houses near what

is now Lincoln Center, as did another founder, Abdullah Aziz, 68. Aziz taught

printmaking and graphics classes and helped manage two Weusi galleries in New

York City.

"They helped me develop my skills," said Gaylord Hassan, 65, who, after

spending most of his life in Harlem, now lives in an Upper East Side nursing

home.

He still paints, he said, using a yellow-red-green-blue palette and images

derived from African masks and fertility dolls, elements he started to

incorporate after connecting with his Weusi friends. "They took me from

landscapes and still-lifes to more Afro-centric work. ... They're still a big

part of my life. Now that we're older, we're even more supportive of each

other."

WHEN&WHERE

"Weusi Collective: Resurrection III," African American Museum of Nassau County,

110 N. Franklin St., Hempstead, opening reception 4-8 p.m. Sunday, closing

reception 4-8 p.m. April 20. Call 516-572-0730, aamoflongisland.org.

Hoping to change their status

Despite the achievements of Weusi Artists Collective members, the group is not

well-known outside African-American art circles.

Partly that's because they've continued to explore African and

African-American themes, said David Byer-Tyre, director of Hempstead's African

American Museum. "Most of this art is about the development of black identity,"

he said. He hopes to change their status with this exhibit.

The museum - a multiroom complex that was a recording studio for the Isley

Brothers - plans to photograph the works for online posterity. The exhibit

"catalog" is a video of interviews with the artists. It was made by David

Wigglesworth, the 24-year-old son of Weusi member Emmett Wigglesworth. Some of

the artists will conduct workshops for schoolchildren at the museum during the

show's run, and most will attend the opening and closing receptions.

The Weusi Artists Collective has already made inroads with a new

generation. In 2005, the Children's Art Carnival, a community art school in

Harlem, received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a program in which

young people interviewed the artists for a Web site (weusiproject .com) and

video. Art Carnival executive director Marline A. Martin said she plans to show

a video excerpt at the museum's opening reception.

"We did this project because a lot of our [African-Americans'] history is

not documented," she said. The Weusi, she said, deserve attention. "They were

formed at a crucial time in our history.... People were inspired by their work,

and it spread across the nation. Their art had an impact."

- Aileen Jacobson

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