Amos Kennedy Prints!, on display at the Community Folk Art Center, demonstrates how Kennedy plays multiple roles in his printshop located in Gordon, Ala. He’s a skilled printer who does work for various customers, a social commentator with an often sardonic delivery, and an artist who embraces and celebrates placing words not on a computer screen but on paper.
The exhibit indeed presents posters and other items Kennedy has printed for customers including the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, Tee’s Lounge of York, Ala., a “21st-century juke joint,” and a group promoting a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert in Ocono, Maine.
That’s only one segment of Kennedy’s hand-printed pieces. There’s an extensive body of work reflecting his own viewpoints and perspectives and expressed in posters, broadsides and other pieces. The CFAC show documents his interest in proverbs created by sages extending across time and borders, from Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States. These prints highlight the words of Benjamin Franklin, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu and Aeschylus, the ancient Greek dramatist who said “call no man happy until he is dead.” Yet another print offers a quote from Charles DeGaulle, the French general and politician, who once said that the world’s graveyards are filled with indispensable men.
Some of the pieces use a straightforward graphic approach, presenting words against a unicolor background. Others employ multiple colors like a poster, done in blue, orange and green, that offers a saying from Sierra Leone: “Proverbs are the daughters of experience.” Kennedy also uses a multiple-color design in a print showcasing a Nigerian proverb: “Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.”
Yet another group of prints incorporates whimsy and sharp irony. One piece, for example, advises viewers to only fish on days ending in y. Prints stating that “coffee makes you black” and “coffee makes you queer” both have an absurd flavor and a larger point. The statements are ridiculous but no more ridiculous than social constructs that had a profound impact on various societies, including our own.
And the exhibition displays Kennedy pieces with a specific historical context. One group of prints, from his Rosa Parks series, presents her words in the form of an illustration. In addition, there are a couple of works that aren’t prints at all. One of Kennedy’s most interesting pieces reworks a full-length road map of Alabama. On the map, the artist has added his own commentary: “Rev. James Reed died in Birmingham, Alabama on 11 March, 1965, struggling for your right to vote.”
It’s worth noting that the CFAC show straddles craft and art. Kennedy makes some prints with a functional purpose, destined for placement on a wall or pole to promote an event. Moreover, he describes himself as a printer, rejecting the label of artist. Yet there are various pieces in the exhibition that appear to be artworks. That’s particularly true with his multi-color prints.
In the end, that discussion is only a minor theme for the exhibit. What’s far more important is the show’s full exploration of Kennedy’s interest in history, culture and everyday experiences, and his choice of prints as a medium for expressing his concerns. Amos Kennedy Prints! both presents individual pieces and communicates the artist’s love of words.
The exhibit is on display through April 2 at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 442-2230.