Blue Greenberg: Geter retrospective shows African influences

Apr. 18, 2013 @ 04:17 PM

“Tyrone Geter: A Retrospective,” N.C. Central University Art Museum, through April 21. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m. For information, call 919-530-6211.

Walking into Tyrone Geter’s exhibition and seeing the perfection of draftsmanship evoked a wow reaction from me. Drawing as a skill and the ability to make a charcoal line are essential elements in the making of art and demand discipline and perseverance to do it right.
The 45 works in the show include drawings, collages, paintings, installation pieces and ceramic sculptures. Geter’s themes are steeped in his African roots; the human face is his obsession. Each one, whether it is a simple portrait or a powerful drama, is drawn so we see every mark life makes. “Call to Council” 1983, is an example. Here is a portrait of five wizened village elders. The lines in their faces identify them as men weighed down with their people’s problems.
My walk through the gallery with Director Kenneth Rodgers at my side was a journey through Geter’s artistic life. We began with “Black History Month,” 1975, a graduate student work crowded with objects and examples of the principles an art student is taught, like the mirrors to make the piece a self-portrait and an understanding of three-dimensional depth through the use of three windows. Even this early work shows his artistic talent.
After graduate school at Ohio University, like so many, Geter floundered. He moved to Boston, where he finally found the platform he needed to get back to his art. He taught part-time at Framingham State College and was taken on by the prestigious Dolls and Richards Gallery. In 1979 he received a grant from Boston’s Arts and Humanities Council to visit Africa and decided to go. With his young wife, Hauwa, who is from Zaria, Nigeria, at his side, he left for what turned into a seven-year sojourn. He began teaching at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria and painted everything he saw. When he and his wife returned to the states, he had a new understanding of who he was, a fully developed artistic skill and his two children born in Africa.
He immediately found a position at the University of Akron and became the Foundations instructor. A year later he was honored as the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum, the first visual artist to receive this award. Through the next years he added collage to his techniques. We see it in “God’s Country,” 2010, where he uses real fabric in the composition of a woman who sits sideways holding a book in her hands; her blue patterned dress billows out into a pyramidal shape. Behind her is an undefined landscape with the words, “God’s Country” in block letters across the top. In the corner, almost as an afterthought, we read “In God We Trusted.” It is obvious Geter never misses an opportunity to make a point about the things on his mind, whether it is civil rights or the gates of hell.
In the well-illustrated catalog Rodgers recounts the story of the strength and resourcefulness of Geter’s mother. They lived in Anniston, Ala., when his mother decided to find a place where her three children would have more educational opportunities with less discrimination. She left them with their grandmother and headed for Dayton, Ohio. After finding a job as a maid, she sent for her children. Geter, especially, blossomed in the new environment. His teachers recognized his artistic talent and encouraged him to work hard and go to college. His mother knew Geter was talented and prevailed upon her employers to pay for her son’s first year of college. Their investment in this young man’s future was a good one; he finished college, earned a Masters in Fine Art and has had a distinguished career as a teacher and a painter.
Rodgers said Geter talks incessantly about his mother and how much he owed her. There is a portrait of her in the show. The painting which is all about his mother and the determined women who are the backbone of the African American family is “Backache: Your Back Was My Back, I Guarded It With My Life,” 2010. Four women who represent various ages fill the composition. The youngest is marked with a youthful naïveté; the two older women next to her have as Rodgers writes “a rock steady countenance.” At the left the heroine faces us watching out for those on her right as she keeps a weather eye out to the left. This woman stands for the thousands of women who are the strength of their families and is Geter’s homage to his mother who was his greatest friend, supporter and mentor.
Geter’s trip to Africa marked his understanding of his ancestry, and his work since that time shows that relationship. Over the years, he has illustrated a number of children’s books and completed several mural commissions. Two years ago he began a series of sculptures, mostly heads, turning his obsession with faces into three dimensional visages. At the moment he is involved with installations which invoke religious presences. “Who in Hell is Watching the Gate? #1 and #2,” is a large two-sided altar-like piece that takes pride of place in the center of the gallery. The figures – one a male, the other a female – are Buddha types demanding obeisance from all who pass.
Two shows running concurrently in Durham are by African-Americans. At Central it is Tyron Geter, and Wangechi Mutu is at Duke’s Nasher Museum. Both deal with their African roots, both pay homage to the strong women in their society, both use collage. Their work could not be more different, but the message is essentially the same; their African heritage is basic to their art, and the strength of African-American society is its women.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.