A Celebration of Spirit:
The Life and Art of Ellen Powell Tiberino

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A mysterious power that all may feel
and no philosophy can explain.
Goethe

The work of Ellen Powell Tiberino (1937-1992) is a powerful testament to a woman of monumental talent and vision. The greatness of the work lies in the dynamic way it functions on a number of levels. These levels can, perhaps, be "mysterious", elusive to one attempting to explain, analyze, philosophize about exactly what the artist accomplished, and how.

The initial, and naturally most obvious aspect of Tiberino's work, is her technique. Her people, and one can only think of them as the "people" in her work rather than the work's "subjects," seem beyond life-like; elongated figures; exaggerated, yet graceful and powerful hands; faces and heads emphasized, sometimes a little more than a suggestion of a body. Her people are strongly rendered, given a pulsating life-force through line, shape, and color. Her figurative style is unique, and her control over line and shape, hue and value is both complete and dramatic.

But though Tiberino's people are rendered with a subtle, though vigorous distortion of form, they remain fully human, fully recognizable. She gives us African American people of all ages grieving, enjoying themselves, suffering, forever suspended in action, but possessing a future as well as a past. She gives us, with power and grace, the life of African Americans, neither idealized nor glorified, but fully human, experiencing the range of emotions available to all human beings.

The emotional level of her work reaches out to the viewer, and informs, calms, pleases, shocks, educates, sometimes horrifies. The themes of the work recur from her early drawings and paintings, to those completed just before her death: young girls growing into womanhood; the elderly and the ancestors; pregancy and motherhood; the inner life of women; the experience of Southern African-Americans as they moved North; the curch in the African-American community; the history of Americans of African descent.

Lastly, there resides in Tiberino's work an African aesthetic sensibility, though she was trained in the classical Western aesthetic tradition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Many scholars, including Robert Farris Thompson, note that, for a variety of reasons, African influences have survived in the art, music, and dance of descendants of Africans in the Americas despite the cruel and complete manner in which Africans were torn from their homelands and cultures. Indeed, Thompson claims that "...there is evidence of such continuity in the visual arts..., but that few experts have bothered to search for it." In Tiberino's work, we find a memory of the ancestral art of Africa, infusing her work with a deeper reality beyond the apparent surface images. The memory of Africa is discernable at an aesthetic level, and is inextricably present in the overall dynamism of Tiberino's work.

Joanna DiPaolo (Excerpt from a work in progress)

Philadelphia Museum of Art article
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