One of the collages in Portals + Revelations: Richard J. Watson Beyond Realities, at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, includes a photo of Watson’s uncle, killed under mysterious circumstances in World War II.
The patina of the old photo, of a soldier dressed in a beige uniform, looks like it was kissed by the light of a setting sun. It portrays a man who exuded a confidence in himself, a swagger full of possibilities. A happy soul.
The piece is called The Known Soldier, because unlike the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the artist’s family knew this soldier’s name: Thomas James Watson.
The cause of his death, however, was not known.
There was talk about accidental “friendly fire,” Watson said in a recent interview as he walked through the exhibit. But the family suspected his uncle might have been killed by racist fellow soldiers in a still-segregated army.
“It was the first time I saw my grandfather cry, and my grandfather was a strong man,” Watson said.
Portals + Revelations, a new solo exhibition through March 6, showcases a variety of Watson’s art created over nearly three decades.
“He’s just prolific,” said Dejáy Duckett, the museum’s director of curatorial services. “He reaches into his personal experiences, his ancestral history, as a connecting point for all of us.”
On portals and what they reveal
The idea behind Portals + Revelations is that we take messages and information through the various portals we enter: the technology of computers and smart phones,; the doorways of a church, cathedral, mosque, or synagogue; or our own eyes.
“The portal is the thing you look through, or go through,” Watson said. “The revelations are what you learn when you go through a door and don’t know what’s behind it until you enter. The portal is an entrance to your attention. That’s what the show is about. Things are revealed when you come in.”
Among some 55 pieces, there is a section of rural landscapes, scenes of the artist’s early childhood in North Carolina, where he was born. These paintings are muted, in subtle colors.
There are also smaller, similar landscapes painted in acrylic on computer monitor screens he salvaged from the museum.
The contrast here is that Watson captured these rural images, memories of farms and fields and ponds, and launched them into a future onto computer screens. Yet these canvases, titled Portal I and Portal II, are already outdated and discarded technology.
In another section of the exhibit, there are paintings in vivid, bold colors, attention-grabbing blues, greens, pinks and reds There are scenes of water, always water, with flowers, fish, and imaginative creatures floating throughout.
And there are mixed-media collages, where Watson employed found objects, from buttons to bullet casings, to door knobs, all decrying a world of lynchings, wars, and street murders.
One mixed-media collage, Enough Said, Already, includes a photograph of a Black man hanging from a tree, juxtaposed to photos of journalist Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching crusader, and the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Along the bottom, a string of newspaper headlines blare about modern-day shootouts and killings.
Morgan Lloyd, a gallery guide at AAMP, who is also a Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said several patrons at the Watson exhibit have been overwhelmed.
“They were saying, ‘This is brilliant,’ or ‘He’s a genius,’” Lloyd said of a tour by a group of art teachers from a local college.
At least three women, all of them white, in the group of art teachers, wept when they saw the collage, Lloyd said. They told her they had not understood the “weight” that Black people carry because of almost daily homicides in the city.
Ancestral memories, icons, and political movements
Instead, he draws deeply on memories of his family for inspiration. One section of the exhibit is devoted to the important women in his life, including his mother, who died at age 21 of tuberculosis when Watson was only 3.
“The works emanate from my memory of the past, living in the South with grandparents, growing up in New York with my aunt, and rejoining my father in Philadelphia, with his second wife.”
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Watson was 11 when he came to live with his father in Philadelphia. Although a middle school art teacher noticed he had talent, he did not study art seriously until he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age 19.
He was at PAFA when he joined the teenagers and young adults in the 1965 protests against a whites-only policy at Girard College, then a K-12 boarding school for “poor, white, male orphans” in North Philadelphia.
“I was taken to the police station and interrogated about one of the books I had,” he said. “I had a sketchbook, and I was drawing people at the picket lines.”
At PAFA, he drew models who posed for classes, but added picket signs in their hands. One teacher demanded, “Are you an artist or an activist?’
“Of course I’m an activist artist,” he said this week. “But that’s not the primary source of my creativity.
“I’m a Black man who has been involved in and subjected to racism and discrimination, and I see people who are voiceless who share the same sentiment. I went to school to learn how to articulate imagery through a brush and a canvas and other materials....”
Watson is also known for murals on the walls of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia that depict scenes of Black opposition to oppression. He worked with the late Philadelphia artist Walter Edmonds on the murals in the early 1970s.
A long history at AAMP
This is Watson’s first solo exhibit at the African American Museum, where he is artist-in-residence. He started working there as director of exhibits in 1986.
He never featured his own work at AAMP because he did not want it to appear as self-serving.His work has been shown in local art galleries and in New York.
Duckett, who had once worked at the museum right out of college in the 1990s, returned to AAMP in 2017 and told Watson “it was time.”
“I really had to push it with him, and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Watson, who is also a poet and a musician, does not want people to see this exhibit as a retrospective, indicating a career that is behind him.
There is more art ahead, he said: “Books that I’ve illustrated are going to be offered to the public next month.”
The African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are $14 for adults; $10 for seniors, children, and students with ID; and free for members. For more information or to make a reservation, call 215-574-0380 or visit aampmuseum.org/.