Straighten Up the WorldSelf-Taught Art from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts

May 18 through October 27, 2019

Clementine Hunter, Nativity (detail), c. 1980, Acrylic on board, Gift of Martha and Jim Sweeny

An Exhibition in Memory of Martha Sweeny  –  EXTENDED THROUGH OCTOBER 27

“There are so many rocks and so many broken stones and so many nails and sticks and weeds and debris and garbage and trash, and we have to plow and mine the worst things on this earth to make them better, and to make us better, so we can show the world: I can handle it.”

– Lonnie Holley

This exhibition brings together works from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts that display the prowess and innovation stemming from self-taught artistic practices from the American south. Purvis Young used cast-off materials to capture scenes and portraits of people he saw in his inner-city Overtown neighborhood of Miami, noting “I paint them all kinds of ways…some people protesting, some happy, some white, some are black, green or purple. People that think like me. Different kinds of people trying to straighten up the world.” These artists face severe socio-political inequalities, including poverty and systemic racism, and yet created transformational artworks from materials that could easily be overlooked.  A number of their works call for change, as seen explicitly in Ned Cartledge’s Freedom is Not Free (1995). Others portray family life and religious imagery, and many, as in the work of Lonnie Holley, embody the shrewd repurposing of materials and modes of improvisation.

“Straighten Up the World,” drawn from the donation of self-taught art from Jim and Martha Sweeny, adds more diversity to the St. Petersburg museum’s permanent collection.Tampa Bay Times

This exhibition is drawn from donations to the Museum of Fine Arts by Martha and Jim Sweeny. Together, the Sweeny’s had a goal of increasing representation of women artists and artists of color within arts institutions. This aligned with the MFA’s dedication to encyclopedic representation – telling the whole story of art history and civilizations. The Sweeny’s shared passion for work by self-taught artists began in Atlanta, where they met and lived for many years before settling in St. Petersburg. This exhibition premieres a number of donations that have never before been displayed at the Museum, and features works by Howard Finster, Clementine Hunter, Mary Proctor, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth.