CT gallery exhibits honors Black history through home design

“Love Overflowing: Home and the Décor of Freedom,” on view through May 12 at the Amistad Center for Art & Culture in Hartford, feels like home.

The center’s mission is to document the African-American experience, and “Love Overflowing” does this in a lived-in fashion that also demonstrates how cultural circumstances can influence how homes look and function. There’s an expertly detailed doll’s house. There’s a closet. There’s a bookshelf. There’s a video about the restoration of a famous kitchen.

The center, which is housed at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art but is run separately, has transformed its small gallery area with a variety of visions of 20th-century home life. There are elaborate photos from photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s “Suburbia” series, one of which shows a closet where military uniforms hang next to civilian overcoats, with an old family portrait distinguishing the shelf above.

The work of another fine photographer, John Pinderhughes, is hung with intentional informality, affixed to a wall with magnets rather than framed. That and other curatorial decisions enforce the hominess theme of the exhibit as a whole.

In program notes, the Amistad Center explains how Black celebrities of the 19th and 20th centuries created homes for themselves that “staged the inhabitant’s triumph over slavery, discrimination and supremacy while encouraging ideas of an appropriate design aesthetic.” The exhibit is curated by Frank Mitchell, a former director of the center who is now its curator-at-large and is currently a curatorial advisor for the new Toni N. and Wendell C. Harp Historical Museum at the Dixwell Q House in New Haven.

Love Overflowing

Christopher Arnott/Hartford Courant

A bookshelf with everyone from Booker T. Washington’s memoirs to an issue of Ebony magazine is part of the “Love Overflowing” exhibit. (Christopher Arnott/Hartford Courant)

A centerpiece of the show is a doll’s house whose rooms replicate real-life settings from the houses of Madame C.J. Walker,  Lena Horne, Maya Angelou and Frederick Douglass.

One wall is styled to look like the colorful patterned walls of Ebony Magazine’s test kitchen area in the Johnson Publishing building in Chicago. When the building was sold in 2010, the then-38-year-old kitchen area was painstakingly preserved. This year, it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. The wall could as easily have come from a Detroit soul discotheque as from the kitchen of a Chicago periodical.

“Love Overflowing: Home and the Décor of Freedom” efficiently and economically injects key historical works into its display. A hip wallhanging bookshelf holds copies of Booker T. Washington’s “The Story of My Life and Work,” W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” an issue of Ebony, “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook,” a songbook from the Broadway musical “The Wiz” and other resonant documents.

In conjunction with the gallery exhibit (which opened in October), the Amistad Center is hosting a “Love Overflowing” film series in the Wadsworth auditorium. Remaining screenings include Raven Jackson’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” Jan. 12-14, 2024, Daniel Petrie’s 1961 film of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Feb. 9-11, 2024, and Joe Talbot’s 2019 drama “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” on Feb. 23 and 24. Admission to the screenings are $10 and does not include museum admission.

“Love Overflowing: Home and the Décor of Freedom” is on display at the Amistad Center for Art & Culture, 600 Main St. Hartford. Admission is $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for students and free for Hartford residents, youth under 18 and Wadsworth Museum members. amistadcenter.org.

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