Arts feature: 'Start At Home'

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
“Nkisi Nkondi: Beard” by H. Ike Okafor-Newsum

Horace Ike Okafor-Newsum stands in a distinct spot in the Urban Arts Space gallery.

On exhibition in Ohio State University's Downtown gallery space is “Start At Home: Influence, Commitment, Integrity,” featuring his work alongside that of fellow OSU emeritus faculty members Robert J. Stull and Pheoris West.

Okafor-Newsum had spent seven minutes or so speaking with reverence about West's immediately identifiable treatment of the female form and Stull's legacy as an educator and versatility as an artist when he stopped and took particular note of this location in the gallery.

“This is where all three of our work comes together, in this spot,” he said, gesturing with his hands. “You can see me, Bob there, Pheoris. … This is something that (Urban Arts Space Director and exhibition curator Merijn van der Heijden) talked about from the very beginning, that there has to be some space where the viewers can see the three of you at once. And this is that space.”

After a pregnant pause, he concluded, with a smile, “I appreciate that the university is showing us a little love.”

“The premise is that all three, being on faculty, share a significant teaching legacy at the university,” van der Heijden said. “It so happens that their work does speak eloquently together.”

The exhibition is the second “Start At Home” show presented by OSU. In 2017, the university displayed a large selection of works from the permanent collection of the Hale Black Cultural Center. That exhibition spurred conversations about continuing some of the themes addressed, including the idea that we can “Start At Home” when looking for significant artwork, specifically in the African and African American vein.

“There is a story we can tell with this work that becomes a community-building experience,” van der Heijden said.

The trio is bound by connections both thematic and practical. Stull hired West to the faculty at OSU when the former was chair of the Art Department. West and Okafor-Newsum both had studios in the Milo Arts building in the late '90s and early '00s. Both Okafor-Newsum and Stull followed a path to OSU that included a stop at the University of Michigan.

“Bob hired Pheoris. He hired other black faculty for the art department. That had never been done before,” said Bettye Stull, Robert's widow. “He brought diversity in the kind of art being explored and made. The city was not engaged in African art at the time that he came, so that was something that he introduced.”

A focus on making inspired by African and African American traditions also binds the three artists. Okafor-Newsum said his portion of the exhibition is titled “American Congo and Other Expressions.”

“There is a thought to being environmentally conscious, reusing plastic containers and other found items, found or consumed,” he said. “But it's also concerned with Congo cosmology. I am making my versions of the nkondi statue, that's sort of a protector. But I'm also incorporating the idea of the memory vessel, that represents a loved one, and blending that with the nkondi.”

Okafor-Newsum's contribution also includes a tribute to firefighters, inspired by the January passing of his father, who was one of a group of the first black firefighters hired by the City of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1955, and who retired as a Division Chief in 1989.

Okafor-Newsum said he is a much more active art maker now that he is retired (he chaired the Department of African American and African Studies at OSU until 2016), and that, while not a formally trained artist nor professor of art as Stull and West, he has been moved to make visual art as a response to the many concepts in traditional African spirituality he encountered in his studies and his teaching.

He's also aware that his new work bridges a gap between the exhibition's retrospective nature and the present.

“Bob's been gone for 20, 25 years (Stull passed away in 1994). His stuff hasn't been seen for a while, and it's time. And we shouldn't let Pheoris' stroke (West continues his recovery from a severe 2016 stroke) keep us from seeing his work anew,” Okafor-Newsum said. “I'm glad the university is doing this.”

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