A unique exhibition is now available for Auburn residents with an interest in the growing art and cultural community in town. This year’s Winter Invitational, which began Jan. 18 and is set to end Feb. 26 at the Jan Dempsey Community Art Center off Opelika Road, will combine the works of two artists, two continents and the passion of visual art from two distinguished Auburn men.
The exhibition will feature Alabama Black Belt Photographs and West Africa Drawings Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Alabama Black Belt Photographs will consist of 26 photographs on metal taken by Frank Uhlig while the West Africa Drawings will feature 14 ink drawings by the late Hugh O. Williams. Items from the exhibition may also be available to members of the public.
Hugh Williams was an alumni professor of art emeritus at Auburn University for many years. While teaching in the Department of Art, Williams received an opportunity through the Fulbright-Hays Program to spend time in Africa.
His travels and experiences in West Africa served to greatly influence his art. In 2005, a major exhibition of his new work was held at Columbus Museum of Art. It included large multimedia paintings, sculptures, ceramics and drawings. The 14 drawings in this current show were among a group of drawings first shown in Columbus. They present traditional African headdress and market scenes in Kumasi, Ghana.
Frank Uhlig is a German- born professor emeritus of applied mathematics. Since retiring from research, writing and teaching in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Auburn University, he has continued his creative interest in photography.
The majority of the images in this exhibition were taken in Hale and Perry counties in west Alabama between 2017 and 2019. Many of them have been shown previously at Pebble Hill, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and elsewhere. A number of works depict Auburn University’s Rural Studio building projects and sites. His book “Alabama Views and Words” also includes Black Belt photographs.
For Uhlig, his use of photography as an artistic outlet isn’t a far stretch from his career as a mathematician.
“I am a mathematician, a family man and a photographer,” Uhlig said. “For me, math is not a science but an art. Math does not have a physical reality attached to it such as forces for physics, elements for chemistry or living entities for biology.
“Math is a mental human construct. It is dry and either new and worthwhile or useless and possibly even wrong.”
It is the concept of this mental construct that allowed Uhlig the ability to travel and teach his research on a global scale. During his career, Uhlig organized three international conferences at Auburn, wrote approximately 100 papers totaling 2,000 pages of prints and authored five books on math by his retirement in 2014. Since retiring, Uhlig has written 20 more papers and given three plenary lectures at conferences on three continents.
During these travels, Uhlig not only explored the concept of math but also began to look at the lay of the lands, taking a few extra days each trip to discover the areas, the people and to take pictures.
“That is my artistic outlet,” Uhlig said. “To go and depict what I see, what my mind deems worthy of shooting.”
On a museum bus tour 14 to 20 years ago, Uhlig found a subject more than worthy.
“I learned of the Black Belt and the Rural Studio on a museum bus tour there,” Uhlig said. “I was fascinated with the land, the poverty, the resilience and the friendliness there.
“I now visit this area twice a year for three to four days to photograph. I know locals, AU architecture faculty and projects there.”
Named after the once-fertile black topsoil, the Alabama Black Belt Region, comprising 10 Alabama counties, is a part of a larger crescent shaped area known as the Southern Black Belt, which extends from Maryland to Texas. Identified for both its physical geography and its large Black population, nine of the 10 Alabama Black Belt counties are identified as Alabama’s poorest. However, for Uhlig, this abject poverty does not deter him from seeing an image worthy of shooting.
“I am a bit reluctant to show my really harrowing images — a woman walking out of the communal outhouse for three dilapidated trailers with a dog following her and sniffing her rear,” Uhlig said. “The trash cans, trash washers, trash around compounds without trash service, with open sewers and everyone suffering of hook worm, the drug houses, the danger of Dodge City, where I go and make friends, but the police or fire departments do not dare to go ever because of the known violence.
“I go there, talk, depict and, when I go back, I often bring my printed images to the people, to be met with a loaded gun directed at me, ordering me to get off the property. I do not mind.”
And after so long, according to Uhlig, that original interaction can be swayed to open conversation, one without the presence of fear due to differing circumstances.
“On my next visit, I drop my pictures off at their house and when gun-threatened, I shout to them to pick up the photo when I am gone,” Uhlig said. “After a few months, I go back and may be invited in where we can talk and sit together without fear.
“The area of potholes every five feet on paved roads, the broken refrigerators, beer can heaps around houses, the signs for bail bonds on their churches, no trespassing, trespassers will be shot at first sight sings but I feel welcome and safe, all while being German and obviously a foreigner.”
In this exhibition, Auburn residents will be able to view photos taken by Uhlig over a course of nearly a decade, with the oldest photo from 2012 and the newest from 2019.
While the mathematician may see the necessity to capture his subjects, Uhlig wants to be clear that the purpose of his work still remains unknown, even to him.
“I do not know what the purpose of art, of visual art, is,” Uhlig said. “Maybe to make it visible.”
For those who desire a deeper insight into the exhibition, Uhlig encourages all to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We can meet at the show after making an appointment for individuals, groups, school classes, photography students, newspaper editors and for all the gypsies of the world,” he said.