Harold Smith, “The Story of Us” (2019), 24″ x 36″, acrylic on stretched canvas (by the artist)
With his new TV drama “Bel-Air,” filmmaker and Kansas City native Morgan Cooper delivers a serious reimagining of the ’90s sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The reboot premiered in February to critical acclaim. A major difference between the two shows is that Philly, relegated to the original’s intro, takes center stage in Cooper’s portrayal. The show is a two-pole visual profile of black American coastal life, but Kansas City remained central to Cooper’s vision. He handpicked local creatives — from painters to jewelers to fashion designers — to breathe aesthetic life into “Bel-Air,” and their work is now on display at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center in a exhibition curated by Jason Piggie. It was developed in collaboration with the African American Artists Collective and JuneteenthKC.
Upon entering, I expected to see specific pieces featured in the exhibit, but the exhibit is more of a showcase of the artists who had a creative hand in “Bel-Air”. Jason Wilcox’s paintings take up the most space, and rightly so. He was tasked with creating the character art for Aunt Vivian, which is significant given that her main character arc from season one rekindles her creativity. Although the paintings displayed at the Watkins Center are not those commissioned for the exhibition, they are testament to his immense talent and stylistic range. Wilcox masterfully captures the larger-than-life characters of black cultural royalty like Beyonce, Jay-Z, Rihanna, and the Smith family with layered expressionism reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Anthony High’s brightly colored portraits pay homage to jazz icons like Nina Simone and Miles Davis. Harold Smith, an expressionist artist who lists his influences as “jazz and the dynamics of jazz in life,” creates a collage of light, pattern, and color in “Untitled.” The canvas is cut in two and two faces painted in very different styles present themselves with a cold uneasiness. A ‘Cargo Twill Swing Jacket’ by textile designer Whitney Manney evokes the baggy shapes and funky colors of early ’90s fashion, while the asymmetrical pattern anchors it in contemporary streetwear. It’s the kind of piece a vintage connoisseur dreams of finding in a thrift store, but knows they never will because who would ever give it up? Some of Manney’s designs were used to style “Bel-Air’s” little sister, Ashley Banks.
Christine Nelson of Ann Mann Designs also contributes wearable art. Crowns and necklaces of copper and gold contribute to the golden imagery of “Bel-Air”. Clarissa Knighten’s delicately constructed copper wire jewelry and sculptures, adorned with pearls and shells, manage to feel both experimental and luxurious.
Warren Harvey’s colorful, geometric portraits of black life are second in number to Wilcox, but their placement, tucked away in a corner of the first floor, means you’d never know they were part of the exhibit.” So Fresh”, which occupies the second floor. However, Harvey’s art is beautiful and thought-provoking in itself. His more representative work is particularly astonishing. In an artist statement, he lists his characteristic vivid colors as a way to “show off the creativity and beauty of the Creator”.
Indeed, creation and divinity permeate his paintings in more ways than one, as he paints scenes of motherhood and femininity in “Divine Nourishment” and “The Divine Preparation”. He depicts his subjects in abyssal blue with mosaics for the faces, all unique but with a shared gold dot in the center of the forehead, asking us to reflect on the magic of individuality, community and creation. Harvey, Smith, High and Wilcox had their paintings featured in scenes from “Bel-Air”, along with clothing and jewelry from Manney, Knighten and Nelson.
“So Fresh” continues at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, through July 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, 816.513.0700 or www.brucewatkinscenter.com. For more on the Kansas City art featured in “Bel-Air,” check out Julius Karash’s column in our July/August issue.