The art of Robert Templeton: a curator's view

Jontyle Theresa Robinson, whose essay ``A hands-on Haitian artist'' appeared here last February, is the curator of an exhibition by an American artist, Robert Templeton, scheduled for this coming February at Emory University in Atlanta. Here is part of her interpretation of the art of a painter whose works may also be seen in such places as the National Portrait Gallery, the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, and the new Sam Rayburn House Office Building. LIKE a latter-day liree (teaching) man of South America's ``Bush African Americans,'' Robert Templeton forces us to confront the past and present. Africans had been brought as slaves to Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in the early 1600s. Many managed daring escapes from their captors.

Joined by Africans who had arrived earlier and were encouraged by the newcomers' courageous efforts, these Bush African Americans waged a hundred-year guerrilla war from the almost impenetrable rain forest. The Dutch government finally realized the futility of its fight against the people of the bush and retreated.

These African men and women `` . . . kept Africa alive in the New World more than any other group,'' according to S. Allen Counter and David L. Evans in their book ``I Sought My Brother: An Afro-American Reunion.''

The people of the bush still keep their past alive through regular rituals honoring their valiant forebears with drumming, singing, dancing, and drama.

Like the ancestral ritual of the Bush African Americans, Robert Templeton's forthcoming exhibition, ``Lest We Forget . . . Images of the Black Civil Rights Movement,'' celebrates the struggle of the past and the ancestors who insisted on change.

Templeton might have begun his series of images and portraits in Africa, where the civil rights of black people were first violated, or in Suriname, where Bush African Americans regained their civil rights. But he begins in the 1800s with a portrait of Frederick Douglass, the prototype of the black liberator.

One winter in Miami when Templeton was painting portraits, the concept for the series came to him as he first encountered separate facilities for blacks and whites. This racism, occurring in America, smoldered in his thoughts for years. Finally, in 1967 when he was in Detroit covering the riots for Time magazine, he realized he could remind Americans through pictorial narrative that theirs is a country founded on democratic principles.

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays inspired the title of the exhibition and helped the artist decide who should be depicted. (It should be noted that a number of individuals, asked to sit for the artist, refused.) Through his own research and suggestions from Dr. Mays, Templeton decided how to proceed.

One group of works forms a continuous narrative, showing violence, pain, and struggle. Among these are ``Detroit Riots'' (1967), ``The Young Blacks'' (1967), ``Black Power or Non-Violence'' (1968), ``Despair, Then Anger'' (1968), ``Solidarity Day'' (1968), and ``Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi'' (1968). Within the narrative, between historical events, the artist places portraits of men and women who fought for or embodied democracy.

Portraits of many of the more recent figures, including Ralph McGill (1964), Ralph Abernathy (1964), Benjamin Mays (1964), Hubert Humphrey (1970), Rosa Parks (1970), Bobby Seale (1971), Roy Wilkins (ca. 1971), and Asa Phillip Randolph (ca. 1972), were painted from life.

Templeton's portraits vary widely in style and form. The Frederick Douglass portrait, for example, has a kind of ``antique'' quality. Moorefield Storey, Mary White Ovington, and W. E. B. DuBois (founders of the NAACP) are a portrait trio. Douglass's face is shown in three-quarter view. Storey, Ovington, DuBois, and Whitney Young are all full face.

In yet another variation, Templeton depicts Booker T. Washington in a full-length portrait. Even though the figures and scenes are rendered naturalistically, they are not hard-edged and photographic but rather one man's interpretation of what events and people look like historically, psychologically, and symbolically.

The colors in the painting of Malcolm X are different from all the other naturalistic tones and hues used in the series. The artist portrays Malcolm X in blue or ``sad tones'' because of the heat he got from the white establishment. ``There is a kind of wail coming out . . . a blue wail . . . like a piece of the blues,'' Templeton said during an interview last fall.

On the other hand, the portrait of Martin Luther King, which engaged Templeton from 1964 to 1985, expresses no sadness, even though both King and Gandhi were assassinated. Templeton utilizes warm, mellow colors for King.

Templeton combines several media in this series, including oil, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, and collage. The surfaces of the paintings are generally very smooth with little or no texture.

Robert Templeton's roots are in the South. His grandparents, who were originally from England, lived in the South before migrating first to Missouri, and then to Iowa, where Templeton was born in 1929.

It is therefore fitting that Emory University, a Southern institution, should play host to this exhibition, which will run during the month of February at the Schatten Gallery, Robert W. Woodruff Library.

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