Lost Art

Dallas' most compelling art museum is hidden away in an old East Dallas firehouse

Govenar went to work, hitting flea markets and garage sales and tracking down photographers. He and Houston photographer Benny Joseph went through 10,000 negatives in order to capture the flavor of black city life in Houston in the '50s and '60s, when people like Don Robey and Bobby Blue Bland made the city a hotbed of R&B creativity. The result was a book called The Early Years of Rhythm & Blues: Focus on Houston, published in 1990.

As the archive grew, so did its importance. Black communities, denied the attention that newspapers and the like afforded whites, relied on photography to document their way of life, and more of these records were being lost each day.

The pictures in the collection are startling for the vividness with which they present their time, not only in their subjects--you could hardly get a prouder, more potent picture of self-determination than a black-clad Lightnin' Hopkins, disdainful in his shades, his cigar and hat cocked at identical angles--but also in the implications that swirl around them. A tintype of a stern paterfamilias: Was he born a free man or a slave? Did he seethe beneath that regal bearing, or did he put his trust in Jesus? A beaming class of kindergarten graduates: How many would go on to find joy in family, refuge in a bottle, or death in a faraway rice paddy?

As the photos piled up, so did the need to preserve them properly. Govenar looked for another nonprofit that would agree to keep the archive. "But none of them were really willing to foster it with the necessary commitment," he says. "I didn't want it to become another unprocessed collection." So Govenar and Doolin decided they'd maintain it themselves, working in partnership with Dallas' African-American Museum on a grant from the Meadows Foundation. Last summer, they built a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility across Augusta Avenue that Doolin bought with money from an inheritance, and they were recently awarded the funding to hire a full-time archivist.

Even though his passions make it almost unavoidable, Govenar is sometimes bothered by the historian's label; he finds that it overshadows his own artistic efforts in photography--often reflecting his continuing fascination with tattoos--and book arts, some of which contain his own poetry. "It's also a big part of what I do," he says. "But it's the part that never gets written about."

Like Govenar's roles as documentarian and artist, Documentary Arts and Contemporary Culture often overlap. When Govenar became interested in the area between Ojinaga, Mexico, and Presidio, Texas, known as La Junta de los Rios--a place where the Rio Grande is more an inconvenience to be crossed than a dividing line--he, Doolin, and several other collaborators including Chris Strachwitz, owner of Arhoolie Records, and local artist John Hernandez, journeyed down.

The La Junta area is rich in contrasts: The local conjuntos play music whose roots extend further back than Texas norteno, but their corridos --story songs--are about drug smugglers and other modernities. "It's one of the few places left where you can simply walk around and find surface relics that are thousands of years old or adobes that have been standing for centuries," Govenar says.

Even though strip centers and trailers are slowly encroaching, the area's Matachin Indian societies still practice a Santerialike hybrid of Roman Catholicism and folk belief, including the Fiesta de la Santa Cruz, a pilgrimage up a nearby mountain that recreates a legendary journey residents made on their knees to pray for the end of a smallpox epidemic, long dropped from the official Catholic Church calendar. The fiesta's pathway up the mountain is lit by burning tires at night; in the morning, Indian dancers perform in the street while the Catholic Church conducts mass. There is even some old footage of an attack on the village by Pancho Villa, supposedly delayed for three days so that the general could extort $25,000 for allowing the filming.

While Govenar and Strachwitz have long-term plans for some sort of video or film project based on their experiences in La Junta, Doolin and Hernandez turned their impressions into the Arts Center's current exhibition. Doolin in particular was struck by the small boats that ferry people and goods across the Rio Grande, keeping feet dry and spinning lines of influence that show up in surprising places. "There are all these American quilt patterns--old, traditional ones--that appear on these handmade Mexican blankets," Doolin says. "The [American patterns] came across the river with trade; now, they appear on blankets made out of recycled clothing brought in from the U.S., and many of them go back across the border again."

This welter of influences--ancient and modern, American and Mexican, steel and adobe, all moving back and forth over the border--resulted in the La Junta de los Rios installation, currently open in the downstairs gallery. (Upstairs, book art gets its customary attention with Pulp Fusion: Recent Art from Dieu Donne Papermill.) On a sandy island, toys arranged by Hernandez play out the history of Mexico: from the armor of Cabeza de Vaca, buried like some Pharoah's statue in the sand, a stream of characters march from the past into the future; Legos are multicolored representations of the cinder blocks that are rapidly replacing the traditional adobe, and elsewhere other arrangements give voice to other impressions.

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