Composition #492 (Factory Scene), oil on canvas board, 16 x 20 inches, c. 1955, numbered and stamped with “Beni Kosh Collection” label verso; Provenance: Rachel Davis Fine Art, John Axelrod (2000) and Museum Fine Arts, Boston (2011)
About the Painting
Composition #492 is among Beni Kosh’s best works. It successfully combines precisionist aesthetics and structural devices with familiar American Scene subject matter, the American metropolis. A Cleveland-based artist, Kosh painted images of his local community in the middle of America’s Rust Belt. For many decades, Cleveland had been a locus of America’s industrial might, and by 1950 its population had reached almost one million inhabitants, making it the seventh largest city in the country. Its factories, refineries and forges attracted tens of thousands of Black Americans from the Piedmont and Southern Appalachian regions of the United States during the Great Migration between the 1910s and 1960s. These descendants of former slaves and freemen left the Jim Crow South in search of economic opportunity and civil rights. By the time Kosh painted Compsosition #492 around 1955, Cleveland had a thriving Black community as many migrants made their new homes in the Cedar-Central neighborhood (which includes what is now known at Fairfax). In foreground of Composition #492, Kosh depicts a likely fanciful amalgamation of the cramped and crowded one- and two-story houses of the community, while the background features the factories and warehouses where many working-class migrants made their livings. Kosh’s ray-lines in the sky recall the work of the precisionist artist Charles Demuth, as well as the geometric patterns of the Gees Bend, Alabama quilters. His use of modified and simplified cubist forms also puts us in mind of the most famous visual chronicler of the Great Migration, Jacob Lawrence. Kosh’s color palette, which includes rosy pinks, light blues and even bright, acid greens, conveys an optimism that we would not normally expect in an urban and industrial scene.
About the Artist
Beni Kosh was a Cleveland painter, who was an artistic chameleon working in a variety of different styles, including cubism, surrealism, magic realism, portraiture, social realism, abstraction, and, in the case of this work, precisionism and the American Scene. Kosh served with the US Marines and was stationed in North Africa, where he became engaged with his African heritage. Kosh studied with Paul Travis at the Cleveland School of Art. Otherwise, he was self-trained. Kosh was born Charles Elmer Harris, but in recognition of his African heritage and conversion to Islam, he changed his name in the 1960s to Beni E. Kosh, which translates to "Son of Ethiopia." During his life, Kosh rarely showed his work, but was affiliated with the “Sho-nuff Art Group” of seven Black artists working in Cleveland and exhibited works at Karamu House, a Black cultural center in Cleveland’s Fairfax Neighborhood which was originally founded in 1927 by Rowena and Russel Jelliffies as The Playhouse Settlement. “Karamu” is a Swahili word meaning “a place of joyful meeting.” Other artists who showed at Karamu House included Charles Sallee, Jr. and Hughie Lee-Smith. Kosh’s artistic output was rediscovered soon after his death when his paintings were located, catalogued and later sold. Important collectors acquired Kosh’s work, including John Axelrod, who donated Composition #492 to the Museum of Fine Arts Boson, which in turn deaccessioned the painting. Kosh is included in the catalogue Yet Still We Rise African American Art in Cleveland 1920-1970 and his works were posthumously exhibited at Cleveland State University, the Butler Institute of American Art and the Riffe Gallery. Writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Steven Litt, noted, “Harris at his best was a powerful artist with a keen eye and a knack for painting both abstractions and representational imagery.” Kosh’s paintings are in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland State University Library, the David C. Driscoll Center for The Study of Visual Arts & Culture of African Americans & the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland and the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art.