Arts & Entertainment

Nettie Thomas Bringing Black Artists Back Into Focus

Nettie Thomas, Curator of the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center, standing alongside Emma Amos’ painting “Curly Topsy.”

MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Nettie Thomas, curator of the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center and former Newark Arts High School teacher, has taken her annual Black History Month Exhibit to the next level this year. This is 12th year of this fascinating exhibit, and this year turned out to be a huge success, since there was a very diverse crowd, not only African Americans came to celebrate the historic art of black history, this year all ethnicities really did come together.  Every year Thomas picks a featured Artist and showcases displays his or her artwork.

Thomas is very much concerned with criteria and credentials; she doesn’t just choose any artist, and the work has to be special. People come in and out of the arts center all the time asking her to show their artwork, but she doesn’t show anything that isn’t collected by significant collectors and published.

“Instead of just showing black artists of achievement, we like to show people who have made a huge historical impact,” said Thomas. “There is no other art exhibit that is able to incorporate the importance of Black History Month with the type of artists 1978 has to offer.”

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This gives her a firm piece of ground to stand on regarding her exhibit, and one she is very proud of. Having come up in the 1960s, she felt there was a real need to reach out to the black community through renowned artwork.

“After the 1967 riots there was a big push for finding out about the black culture and embracing it, and during that time is when I started exhibiting,” said Thomas. She started out in a small group and they were all very supportive of one another, and it was in this atmosphere that she got to know established artists.

“Knowing people like Ben Jones and Lisa Washington made it easier for me to get people like Chakaia Booker and Emma Amos to be featured artists for my exhibit, because they were people that I started with, people I exhibited with, and they went on to become quite famous,” Thomas explained.

Amos was one of the artists who came to talk to her art students when Thomas taught at the Arts School, so she was able to easily get into contact with her for this exhibit.

“When Emma came to the opening of the Black History Month Exhibit, she was very pleased. She liked the space and the way her art work was set up,” said Thomas. She knew at first Amos was skeptical about exhibiting because she wasn’t really familiar with Maplewood. Thomas did all the dealings through Amos’ assistant.

“I had to establish the fact that I, and my art exhibit was legitimate and I respect that from any renowned artist,” said Thomas. “By her knowing that Chakaia exhibited here for our 10th anniversary of the exhibit, she then knew that it had to be worthwhile.”

Emma Amos’ work, more than any other artist Nettie has displayed, speaks directly to black history because all of her work is very historical. Amos’ work includes her depictions of significant people from the Civil Rights Movement. Bill T. Jones is a very well-known choreographer and dancer, and Paul Robeson was a great athlete and scholar from Rutgers University. William M. Kunstler was a very well-known lawyer during the Civil Rights Movement. Amos has incorporated all of these people into her artwork to show how these specific people strived to make a name for themselves at times when blacks were not given the same equal opportunities as others.

“Her work really deals with a wide range of historical percentages, more than any artist we’ve ever had,” said Thomas.


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