Coming full circle: artists show paintings in space where protest took place

If only.

That can be an empty phrase, because many times it’s filled with speculation that will never be realized.

If only Randell Henry’s mother had lived long enough to see her son’s artwork exhibited in the Kress Gallery.

The space housed a lunch counter when she worked at the Kress department store in the 1950s, the same spot where Southern University students staged a sit-in at the counter in 1960.

It was the height of the civil rights era. Black people could purchase food at the counter, but they were not allowed to dine there. The students set out to change that.

And their efforts did usher in a change.

For now, Henry’s artwork joins that of three other artists, Christopher Turner, Taufeeq Muhammad and Eric J. Brown in the show, History and Innovation. The show was coordinated to highlight the work of four Louisiana African-American artists.

“And it’s amazing, because it’s hanging here,” Turner said. “The gallery is in the same spot where the lunch counter was, so it’s as if history has come full circle.”

Turner not only is an exhibitor but is the gallery’s director, as well as curator of this show, which runs through Thursday, March 28.

Each artist works in a completely different style yet each complements the other.

Still, it’s Henry’s work that makes the biggest historical statement, not in content but in its presence.

Again, his mother worked at the Kress store at the time of the sit-in. She died from cancer in 2005.

What if she had lived long enough to see this show? For here is her son, an art professor at Southern University, displaying his work here. Surely she would have been proud. Henry definitely is excited about it.

“I’m displaying 13 or 14 works, and I made them all specifically for this show,” he said.

Henry works in abstract expressionism. His pieces are collage paintings in bold, bright colors influenced by people, places and events around him.

This collection takes on a city theme with such titles as “Jazz in the City,” “City Life” and “Rhythm of the City.” All of which are appropriate with this show taking place in downtown Baton Rouge.

And his city theme is a great segue to Turner’s bridge painting.

“It’s actually the Brooklyn Bridge,” Turner said.

But it also can be a reminder of Baton Rouge’s bridges crossing the Mississippi River, connecting one bank to the other. Or it could be symbolic with the bridge connecting cultures.

The bridge marks the beginning of a series Turner calls “Panoramic Observations.” The cityscape in the background is monochromatic; the bridge is painted in burnt orange.

Turner also is showing another painting in this series, featuring the Eiffel Tower.

“I’m working on paintings featuring other places in the world,” Turner said. “I’m thinking about Dubai and the opera house in Sydney, Australia.”

The series also will include local landmarks.

“I’m thinking about the old Mississippi River bridge and the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans,” he said. “I paint them in an abstract style, and I had just started this series before the show, so it’s a work in progress.”

So, call this a sneak preview for what is to come.

Now, Muhammad’s series also is a work in progress, but he’s been working on this series for quite a while. His theme clearly is jazz and jazz musicians, which makes a perfect connection to Henry’s collage painting, “Jazz in the City.”

Step back and look at Muhammad’s musicians performing on one wall, then turn around and see the music in Henry’s painting on the other.

Muhammad’s musicians definitely are jamming. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington — they’re all here.

And Muhammad, a lifelong jazz fan, listens to their music while painting.

“I get a vibe off their music,” he said. “I do a lot of research on the musicians before I start the paintings.”

What’s most interesting about Muhammad’s story is his life path to this series. Everyone in his family plays an instrument. Well, everyone except him.

“When my time came, I wanted to play the trumpet, but my family didn’t have the money to buy one,” he said.

“I’ve always had the gift of art, and my art is inspired by music.”

So inspired that Muhammad’s subjects are animated. How to explain this? Of course, they don’t actually move within the composition, yet they come alive.

Which acts as yet another segue in this show, this one leading to Brown’s work.

Brown’s work is based on his dreams. It’s also rooted in his Christian faith and changes colors with the light.

His work is best viewed in full daylight. The Shaw Center for the Arts was the perfect setting for his previous show, with natural light seeping through vast, glass windows prompting the color change in the paintings.

The Kress’ front glass windows also provide this effect.

And it’s through these windows where passersby will witness history in another sense when people of all races sit down for a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 30. Stroube’s will provide the food, and tickets will be $35.

The luncheon will commemorate the sit-in. It also will celebrate the artwork of four African-American artists featured in this gallery that once housed a lunch counter.

A lunch counter that Henry’s mother well remembered.

And with this exhibit, he remembers her.

For luncheon tickets, call (225) 931-0134 or email lslade@kressgallerybr.com.