Ron Adams (1934–2020),
Ron Adams (1934–2020), "Blackburn," 2000, lithograph on paper, 29 1/2 x 39 in. (framed), Honolulu Museum of Art: partial gift of Robert and Jean Steele; partial purchase with funds from the John V. Levas Trust, 2023 (2023-06-01)

In 2022 the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) acquired 55 pieces from the Jean and Robert Steele Collection — all works on paper created by 26 African American artists. This acquisition (part gift and part purchase) has radically transformed HoMA’s representation of artists of color, and this year it is celebrating with the exhibition “Forward Together: African American Prints from the Jean and Robert Steele Collection.”

Because works on paper are light-sensitive, they are being shown in two rotations; the first half closes on May 12, and the second half appears soon thereafter (May 16–September 15). All were made between 1976 and 2014 by such talents as Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Barkley L. Hendricks, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold.

Working in a variety of techniques and ranging from figuration to abstraction, their pieces explore the retelling of significant stories, cultural memory, social justice, war, and other themes through the lens of the African diaspora. The show’s title comes from a 1997 work by Jacob Lawrence, who honored Harriet Tubman’s efforts to shepherd enslaved people from captivity in the South.

Robert Steele purchased his first artwork in Harlem in 1968 when he was a graduate student at Yale. The distinguished printmaker Robert Blackburn, depicted here in a Ron Adams lithograph that Steele acquired later, encouraged the younger man to connect with other printmakers like Lou Stovall and Allan Edmunds.

Ultimately Steele became director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland. His wife, Jean, is a former corporate executive, and the two relocated to Honolulu in 2016. They have also gifted art to other institutions, including the Mobile Museum of Art, Morehouse College (Atlanta), College of William & Mary (Virginia), and Yale University.

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