BAIA BITS: Ellsworth Ausby
In 1972, abstract painter Ellsworth Ausby wrote about his ongoing quest to “mirror the dynamo of our antecedent heritage despite the temerarious and presumptuous canons of the established art world.” Consistent with such an intention, Ausby often looked to our rich African past to incorporate its aesthetic and legacy in his vibrant art.
That said, the talented artist was far from being stuck in the past. To the contrary, Ausby epitomized the African
concept of Sankofa—of pulling from the lessons of the past to move forward—as he imagined an extraordinary Black future. In her September 2021 piece in The New Yorker, art reviewer Johanna Fateman depicted Ausby as an “Afrofuturist abstract painter” upon describing his 1974 work, Shabazz: “In subsequent multipart compositions… with its rich hues and pointed barbell silhouette, Ausby liberated the canvas from its stretchers to stunning effect. These works seem to float, kitelike, on the white walls, giving fresh meaning to the exhibition’s title, which is borrowed from a Sun Ra song: Somewhere in Space.”
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1942, Ausby moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts and the Pratt Institute. His work soon appeared in numerous group exhibitions including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 1970, Ausby’s first solo exhibition, composed of totemic paintings with colored planes, debuted at Cinque Gallery, founded a year prior by Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, and Norman Lewis to celebrate the work of African American artists.
In 1977, Ausby traveled to Nigeria to participate in the African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC). There, he fully recognized how his work was wholly consistent with traditional African artistic styles in textile patterning, design, and color usage. A year later, Ausby was awarded multiple CETA (the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) artist grants that enabled him to produce major public works including InnerSpace/OuterSpace, a multimedia performance piece incorporating music, dance, poetry, and drama with Ausby’s paintings and sculptures. The piece was performed at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
In 2005, Ausby was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York to design the stained-glass mural, Space Odyssey, at the Marcy Avenue subway station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
For over three decades, until his 2011 death, painter Ellsworth Ausby shared his artistic talents, knowledge, and Afrofuturistic perspective with his countless students while teaching painting at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
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