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Alabama’s Black Artists Celebrated at 2021 Magic City Art Connection

Magic City Art Connection: Special exhibition “Within Reach: Celebrated Black Alabama Artists” can be seen near the Visitors Center at Sloss Furnaces. (Joe Songer for The Birmingham Times).
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Visual artist Sydney Foster never knew how many Black artists from Alabama were “within reach” until she participated in last month’s 38th Magic City Art Connection (MCAC) held at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.

“Being an African American artist and being [at the MCAC] felt surreal because I hadn’t really tapped into the Birmingham arena of art,” she said. “It was a good feeling to be part of it and have my art showcased. … It was a big deal.”

Foster, 26, a photographer based in Montgomery, Alabama, was one of about 14 artists featured as part of the MCAC Special Exhibition—“Within Reach: Celebrated Black Alabama Artists,” an event that showcased accomplishments by Black artists who have helped created a solid arts legacy in the region.

The exhibition was organized by Birmingham artist Dan Bynum of the Alabama Power Corporate Art Collection.

Foster said it’s important to have a light shined on Black artists because “it gives an opportunity to showcase our work, and we don’t know who is going to come to these shows,” she said.

Sydney Foster (Provided Photo)

“It’s another platform for our work to be seen, talked about, and purchased. … Those are really great opportunities for us,” added Foster, who notes that she started taking her art seriously in her early 20s, when she received an internship opportunity in New York.

“It showed me that the possibilities are endless if you really apply yourself,” she said. “I committed to it and shot my first fashion editorial with another Alabama artist. … It ended up being a really big thing and was the confirming moment for me to stick with this.”

In addition to photography, Foster creates illustrations and does graphic design. She also hopes to get into painting.

Sources of Inspiration

Foster submitted two pieces of her work for the MCAC: “Forbidden Was Her” and “Kelsey.”

“Forbidden Was Her” is a photograph of “a beautiful, dark skinned woman being painted in white paint,” Foster said. “The story behind it [is about the] censorship of Black women in the corporate world and in America in general.”

“That photo stemmed from being in a corporate environment, not being able to speak out, and fearing that you’ll lose your job if you speak on certain things, hence the title,” she added, noting that the photo was inspired by a personal experience.

Foster worked as former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s photographer before he resigned, and then she worked for current Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for four years. She remembers “being in some of those rooms, you sometimes couldn’t speak up or say certain things or defend yourself in a certain way out of fear of possibly losing your job.”

Another inspiration for Foster’s “Forbidden Was Her” was a friend who worked in a predominately white corporate setting and experienced similar struggles.

Foster’s second piece featured during the exhibit was a photograph of a young Black girl named “Kelsey.”

“I put that in the show because people connect with it—all types of people, not just African Americans,” the artist said. “People typically say my photos are captivating when it comes to the way I capture people’s eyes. In the black-and-white [image of ‘Kelsey’], it looks like she’s been through so much and she appears to be wise beyond her years if you just look at her gaze in the photo.”

Art Appreciation

Darius Hill (Provided Photo)

Another artist Darius Hill, 54, is a Birmingham native and an art teacher and chair of the art department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where he has served for 20 years. He teaches seventh through 12th grades and is also a graduate of the school. Hill said it was an awesome experience to be featured with other artists like himself.
“I think [being] an artist is an ‘individual sport,’ as I like to call it because for the most part we act alone, we’re in our studios working on our stuff,” he said. “Whenever I have an opportunity to show with a group with maybe some common ideas, I jump at the opportunity because that makes it more like a team effort. … It is good to be together in exhibitions or anything as a show of solidarity.”

Hill has showcased his work during the MCAC before, but this was the first time he was part of the annual event’s Special Exhibition.

“I consider that an honor,” he said. “I have been making art all of my life, and it’s pretty cool to be at a point where I’m recognized enough to participate in exhibits like this one. I have exhibited before as a festival artist a few times, and I’ve been fortunate enough to win Best in Show twice.”

Hill, a mixed-media artist, submitted two pieces: “Ways of Time” and “Soul Power.”

“‘Ways of Time,’ about 15 inches by 15 inches, is a mixed-media drawing. … The title is partially from a song on a [Public Enemy (PE)] album,” he said. “[The piece] utilizes a lot of things from my past, so memories are an important part of the work. It features a symbol that says ‘PE,’ and the group’s logo is in the center. … It’s all abstraction, so you can take it any way you like. … I’m giving you bits and pieces of what’s on my mind, so you can make up your own mind.”

Hill describes “Soul Power” as “a 40-inch circle made of wood [with] a piece of plastic of a Black Power fist from an afro comb I chopped off to use as the centerpiece of that sculpture.”

Another Montgomery native, Toni Toney, 45, was a first-timer showcased at the MCAC.

“It’s surreal to be around other artists who are well known and recognized,” she said. “To have my work amongst theirs is an honor.”

Toni Toney (Provided Photo)

Toney, who works with acrylic paints, submitted a painting of a little Black boy who is a superhero.

“The story behind [the piece] is to show that Black boys are extraordinary and strong, and they can really be anything that they want to be in this life,” said the art educator who has been teaching for 17 years and currently works at the Alabama Department of Youth Services Mount Meigs Campus in Montgomery.

“I’ve always loved to create,” Toney said. “I just noticed colors a little bit differently and patterns, and I was more drawn to that than anything. I like coloring but didn’t know at the time that I could actually make a career out of it. That’s probably why I chose to be an art teacher, so I could foster that love of the arts and show kids that it is OK to be creative, especially now because art is everywhere.”

Other Alabama artists featured during the 2021 MCAC Special Exhibition—“Within Reach: Celebrated Black Alabama Artists” were Larry Allen, Michael Atkins, Michael Banks, Tony Bingham, Amber Cunningham, Chris Davis, Garland Farwell, Joseph Frye, Roscoe Hall, Jon Osborne, and Debra Riffe.