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Black Matter/ing exhibit opens in Wright Museum

On Friday, Nov. 30, the Wright Museum hosted the opening of “Black Matter/ing: An Activist Poiesis.”  The extremely well attended exhibition was curated by Professor M. Shadee Malaklou and the students in her Black Lives Matter course, who worked over a two year period to acquire and analyze the many artworks on display. This curation effort was helped by the Wright Museum’s collections manager, Christa Story, who was able to permanently acquire many of the exhibit’s pieces.

The quite impressive works exhibited included art by African-American artists such as Evelyn Patricia Terry, Leroy Campbell, Spencer Evans, Kara Walker, Jesse Howard, Della Wells, Sondra Wells, Shawn Theodore and Alison Saar (who gave a half hour talk about her work at 4:30 p.m.). Several of the artists were in attendance.

Each work was accompanied by a “museum label” anonymously written by some of the 32 students involved in Malaklou’s class. The dehumanizing and alienating impact of the white gaze on African-Americans was a consistent theme in these blurbs, as was the agency and resistance brought about through black artistic creation, or “poiesis.” Describing works by Lorna Simpson, Jesse Howard and Evelyn Patricia Terry, one blurb notes that “Art then becomes a space where Black creators can retake control of the images they present to the world by rejecting the stereotypes forced upon them by the white gaze […] Black art has the ability to create space in which Black people can define their own narratives and Black lives can truly matter.”  

Renowned sculptor and mixed-media artist, Alison Saar, who had three work on display at the exhibit (“Coal Black Blues,” “High Yella’ Blue” and Mirror, Mirror; Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II”) was introduced Christa Story. In her talk, Saar discussed her biracial background; the influence of her parents varying art styles on her work; her children, who she often uses as models and inspirations for her sculptures; subverting western mythologies and the western art tradition; and the question of what it takes “to dispel bigotry and racism in this country.”

One of the most moving moments during Saar’s talk came when the artist discussed a recent series she had created, brought about in part from the “release of the voice recording of Philando Castile’s girlfriend’s daughter in the backseat of the car when he was murdered, and she’s saying to her mother, ‘I don’t want you to get shooted, I don’t want you to get shooted Mommy.” This recording lead Saar to question “who these children will grow up to be, when you’re witnessing these horrors on the streets and in your backyards, and in your cars, and in your homes, who will you grow up to be?” As Saar talked she had to fight back tears but after a moment she went on to say that she wanted to do a series, entitled ‘Topsy Turvy,’ “that empowered these children.”

One of the works she created for the series (exhibited at the LA Louver) depicts an army of five black girls, each carrying a different tool associated with the five major “slave crops” in the U.S. repurposed as weaponry: a cotton bail hook, a scythe (for rice), a tobacco knife, a machete (for sugarcane) and a hook (for indigo). “It’s said that you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools” said Saar, “but if you take them as arms you can.”

Those who missed the opening (or who would like to view it again in a less crowded environment) can see “Black Matter/ing” anytime between now and Feb. 28, 2019.

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