by John Dayo-Aliya
Walking into a great art exhibit should feel like stepping onto a heightened emotional plane where ideas become tactile and dreams grow legs and soft shoe in the streets. It is a space in which the impossible becomes the likely and the mundane becomes one with the ecstatic.
Emerge, an art exhibit featuring works by 17 women of color, feels just that way. The exhibit showcases voices that are alternately stentorian, regal, mournful, cerebral, playful, sensual, tough, vulnerable and complexly human as the artists themselves.
Anika Ame, co-curator of the exhibit, says that creating space for Black women to express their multifaceted lives and perspectives was a large part of the project’s objective.
“There’s such a rich dynamic to our experiences and we are rarely presented the opportunity or space to give form to so much of what we go through day to day, moment to moment. That’s the most exciting thing about seeing all these Black women represented in so many different mediums,” Anika says.
The mediums include everything from Lolo’s imaginative, sparse blue terrains, which utilize a traditional painterly approach to employ an aesthetic sense of fluidity and emotional intimacy, to Bronlynn Thurman’s ultra-modern digital portraiture.
“We speak in so many voices. I wanted to fit as many as I could into this show,” Anika says.
One of the most powerful voices of the show is that of Jasmine Berry, a graduate of Kent State’s School of the Arts. Jasmine’s work is inspired by artists like Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. She is particularly interested in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” and shades of his work can be seen in her masterful use of jagged staples and folds of fabric which invokes his style of utilizing non-traditional objects as aesthetic material.
But conceptually, Jasmine owes more to the school of pop art. She is interested in “appropriating appropriation” by reversing tropes and stereotypical racialized narratives. In her powerful work “Whitewash,” Jasmine employs painful imagery of racist advertisements and other offensive media representations of lack people and life. The painting acknowledges the humorous intention of the original image, however it dares to suggest that the joke is not on the dehumanized black subject of the racialized media, but rather on the white culture that produced it.
“It’s a joke to me, ” Jasmine says laughing irreverently.
“Racism is ridiculous. I’m a jokester, so that’s what I do. I highlight what I see as funny, and invite people to laugh at it.”
Racism and its psychological effects are echoed throughout the gallery. But while racial politics are part of the artists’ lives, Jasmine says, they are not the sum of their humanity.
“I create art for art’s sake,”Jasmine says. “I don’t like it when the art gets too preachy or overly political. We don’t go to museums and call de Kooning an example of a great Caucasian male artist, and we don’t expect him to represent anyone except himself. Like de Kooning, or Warhol, I have a lot more to talk about than my race or my gender.”
Another recurring theme in the exhibit is female familial connectivity through hair maintenance and ritual. Vanessa Tall’s drawings depict proud, black women displaying their crowns of glory. The inspiration for her piece “African Queens” was an incident as a child when her young cousins — the same three cousins depicted in the wood drawing — chopped off her locks while playing a game,
“It took a long time to grow back. Because of that I’ve always had some insecurity around my hair. It’s probably because of that insecurity that I always loved my cousins’ confidence with their hair. They braid it, cut it short, wear weaves and wigs. And each hairstyle represents some different part of them. It really shows how many sides there are to all women,” Vanessa says.
Shani Richards, who holds an MFA from SUNY-New Paltz, explores the history of post-colonialism in America, creating objects that address racism, sexism, and stereotypes. Her works, two brooms named “Pickaninny” and “Magnolia,” seek to disrupt racial hierarchy using hair as a metaphor for perceived racial difference.
Shani’s work, like much in the show, is both personal and political. She says the tension between the political aspects of her work and her own personal fears and anxieties that act as a catalyst for her expression
“My piece ‘Magnolia’ is inspired by a young black girl who won Akron Beacon Journal’s Spelling Bee in 1936. She then went on to nationals but was cheated and denied her chance at winning. I think this broke her heart, I think she gave up. This promising women ended up a domestic servant for a doctor and his family. She should have been a doctor. The story makes me sad and that sadness echoes through my work and life,” Shani says.
“Art is a reflection of the time we’re in,” she adds. “My work has always been about my race. Now, where we are in this country, I’ve realized recently how much audiences want to escape though art. But right now it seems people collectively aware of so much social trauma. I feel proud of the work that I am doing. But I am driven by a lot of doubt, and I question if my art is what needed now or if should just create something that is beautiful.”
The artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society. This illuminative reflection does not merely mirror society, leaving its delusions undisturbed. Instead, the artist can reveal the vexing realities that haunt our culture. With a well-intentioned stroke of the brush or provocative placement of seemingly innocuous objects, she can make visible that which has been lurking in the open light of day yet remains unspoken, manifested only in the anxious shadows of our collective unconsciousness.
Art shapes a distinguishable part of a culture’s imagination of itself. The art extolled by a culture reveals not necessarily what that culture is, but rather what that culture desires to be.
If the annals of Western art history are to stand reflect our society’s sense of self, one thing is clear: Our society has never seen itself as a Black woman.
However, if Emerge indicates a burgeoning trend, than maybe all that is about to change.
Emerge is on view until August 4.
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John Dayo-Aliya is a playwright, poet, art lover and resident of Akron, OH.