Harriet Tubman, an American Superhero

7 Mar

"The Conductor," detail of a quilt from The Underground Railroad series by Mary Johnson. Photo courtesy of B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studios

A former slave, a daring abolitionist, and a spy and armed scout for the Union Army during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) is one of the great figures of American history – a superhero for the antebellum era. Tubman’s enthralling life story is the subject of Sweet Freedom’s Jubilee, a five-week celebration marking the 99th anniversary of Tubman’s death at B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studios from March 9 – April 21.

"Have Mercy Lawd" by Mar'zil Davis. Photo courtesy of B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studios

Sweet Freedom’s Jubilee explores the life of the most famous of the Underground Railroad “conductors” through visual art and performance. The exhibition opens March 9 with a reception for fiber artist Mary Johnson and sculptor Mar’zil Davis. Johnson is an Alabama-based textile artist whose meticulously constructed series of quilts, The Underground Railroad, depicts Tubman’s harrowing exploits leading slaves to freedom in the North. Mar’zil Davis is a Seattle-based artist whose sculptures provide a realistic perspective into the lives of slaves.

On March  25 and April 21, B2 will present performances of A Visit with Harriet Tubman featuring Karol Brown as the worldly-wise, 92-year-old “Aunt Harriet,” an outrageously brave and resourceful woman who led fugitive slaves armed with a gun, and threatened those tempted to turn back: “You’ll be free or die.” James Brown is Brother Ely, a character who captivates audiences with his smooth tenor and delivery of Negro spirituals. Together, their dialogue “warms your ear, tickles your funny bone, stimulates your imagination [and] motivates your spirit as they educate your mind,” says B2 co-owner and co-curator, Deborah Boone.

Tubman’s story is larger than life: born a slave, she escaped a life of maltreatment and oppression to became a key figure amongst the network of abolitionists known as the Underground Railroad. She went on in the post-bellum era to fight for humanitarian causes including women’s suffrage. The Virtual School at Vanderbilt University offers this synopsis of her life: “As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by masters to whom she was hired out. Early in her life, she suffered a head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. The injury caused disabling seizures, narcoleptic attacks, headaches, and powerful visionary and dream activity, which occurred throughout her life. A devout Christian, Tubman ascribed the visions and vivid dreams to revelations from God.

“In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night, Tubman (or ‘Moses’, as she was called) ‘never lost a passenger.’ Large rewards were offered for the return of many of the fugitive slaves, but no one then knew that Tubman was the one helping them. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she helped guide fugitives farther north into Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

“When the American Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. After the war, she retired to the family home in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She became active in the women’s suffrage movement in New York until illness overtook her. Near the end of her life, she lived in a home for elderly African-Americans that she had helped found years earlier.” You can learn more about Harriet Tubman here.

Deborah Boone with her husband, Gary, owns and curates the B2 gallery. Both have worked for more than 25 years in the professional arts fields and have been bringing art to the Theater District in Tacoma since 2010. Deborah has worked with notable organizations including the Pacific Northwest African American Quilters and the Northwest African American Fine Arts Group, and her own quilt art was included in a 2007 showing of works by Pacific Northwest African American Quilters at the Tacoma Art Museum.

* * * * *

WHO: Fiber artist Mary Johnson; sculptor Mar’zil Davis; actors Karol Brown and James Brown
WHAT:
Sweet Freedom’s Jubilee
WHEN:
Opening reception for visual artists Mar’zil Davis and Mary Johnson on Friday, March 9, 6-9pm. Free. Exhibition runs through April 21, 2012. Performances of A Visit with Harriet Tubman featuring Karol Brown and James Brown on Sunday, March 25 at 5pm and Saturday, April 21 at 7pm. Tickets $15.
WHERE:
B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studios, 711 Saint Helens Ave., Suite 100.
INFORMATION:
B2 Fine Art Gallery, sales@b2finearts.com; 253.238.5065. Performance tickets are $15 and available by PayPal; call B2 for info. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11am-5pm; Third Thursday Gallery Walk 11am-8pm

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