At a time when most people are encountering each other with half their facial features masked, the latest portraits in Janice Frame’s Red Dancers series are exceptionally appealing—and not only because we can see their whole faces.
Now on display at the Eisenhauer Gallery in Edgartown, Ms. Frame’s African tribal members invite viewers to lock eyes with them in a dialogue deeper than words. Each is an individual and highly personal experience, from the dreadlocked figure in the work titled Strength & Power to the butterfly-crowned woman in Free Your Mind.
“My soul reaches to Africa,” said Ms. Frame, a longtime Martha’s Vineyard artist and educator who retired in 2013 after 30 years teaching in Island schools.
“This is who we really are,” continued Ms. Frame, who said she envisions the portraits before she begins to create them. “I see them. They’re friends.”
To build her idealized portraits, Ms. Frame uses handmade paper, metallic paint, stickers and other mixed media such as cowrie shells, which are traditional talismans in parts of Africa. A coat of resin gives the images a gleaming, glass-like sheen.
"My soul reaches to Africa," Ms. Frame says.
Ms. Frame’s dark-skinned people wear face paint, jewelry and ceremonial garments. Their hair, short or flowing, is adorned with flowers, plants, metals and gems, and the expressions on their faces range from quiet contemplation to the brink of joy.
“Every single thing that I do comes back to restoring the dignity, the love of self and the body adornment that African people have,” said Ms. Frame, who was raised in a prosperous South Carolina family that included a dentist, a minister, a pharmacist and three generations—including her own—of teachers.
“They grew up so dignified and so self-affirming,” she said. “I never knew anything about poverty. My grandmother played marbles on Persian rugs. They had a driver.”
The subjects of Ms. Frame’s work are also self-sufficient, but in a different way.
“Tribal people are not after money,” she said. “They live every day and every day counts for them, and to me that’s the essence of life.”
Ms. Frame looks to Africa as a symbol of hope and promise for Black people, she said. “We have to go back to move forward.”
And although she has never been there herself, Ms. Frame takes immense pride in her African heritage and celebrates it in both her work and her life.
“I love my Blackness. I really do,” she said.
An earlier series of Red Dancers in the form of African-inspired dolls, exhibited at Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs, was collected by purchasers including Bill and Hillary Clinton, who bought two, Ms. Frame said.
She no longer makes the doll sculptures, she added.
“The dolls left me,” she said. “They came out from me, and then they went.”
Those wishing to see Ms. Frame’s latest Red Dancers should not postpone a visit to the gallery, which sold one of her portraits within days of hanging it. As of Wednesday, about a half-dozen remained.
Eisenhauer Gallery is open daily on North Water street in Edgartown. Ms. Frame’s portraits are also posted online at eisenhauergallery.com.
By Louisa Hufstader, Martha's Vineyard Gazette, August 6, 2020
Photos by Jeanna Shepard