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Black Art as Black Being

On Friday, March 11th, RISD hosted its first Black Biennial showcase. I was lulled to the Moore terrace by the sounds of Afro Beats. Jerk chicken (well seasoned, may I add), live music performances, laughing, celebrating, I was immediately thrown into the event’s energy. With a tradition of white supremacist values, I often have struggled with museums. Beyond the racist and colonial practices of museum collecting, visual art can feel passive. The art world seems inaccessible and unrelatable without qualifying text or previous historical knowledge. But this event acted as a refusal of those norms and instead was a celebration of black expression.  

A radical student-curated exhibition, the show is on until display on April 10th at the Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery. It was a space of gathering and community as RISD students and alumni showcased works alongside Providence art community members. 

Blackness was expansive, taking over the minimalist white gallery walls. Blackness in paint, photographs, cloth, tapestry, performance, dance, community, and in subjectivity. The complexity and diversity of these pieces explored theoretical and personal narratives of the artists. For example, Haus of Glitter, a performance, and dance group based in the Esek Hopkins homestead demonstrated the intersections of royalty and blackness through their interactive performance during the opening event. MFA graduate Nafis M. White displayed a remarkable 8ft by 8ft woven sculpture mixing different textured synthetic hair into intricate patterns. Within her piece, she cites embodied knowledge, ancestral recall, and audacity of survival as literal materials in her work, exploring the magic found in seemingly mundane beauty shop hair. 

Duality was a common theme in many works throughout the exhibit. Speaking with dual degree student Njari Anderson, he highlights the importance of pain and pleasure in his piece. “It’s a kind of recognition of a part of the really complex existence of blackness in everyday life.” His sculpture was created using 2 bicycles, water bottles, 6oz palmers cocoa butter, OSHA orange paint, 10 zip ties. Its title, Beat me, Pin me, Bend me, Shoot me, “Shoot me,” Hold me, “Hold me Down” (Repeat ) reflects an understanding and a perception of the black body. “The black body is seen as dangerous, but also it is really delicate and fragile, and powerful, and commands space”(Anderson). These ideas come across in Njari’s process. In order to create his piece, he mangled and molded two metal bicycles, but finished the sculpture in matte black and palmers cocoa butter; exploring the artist’s subjective views of the black body, as an entity that has suffered violence but is in need of care. 

The show title, New Beginnings, is a method of claiming and reclaiming spaces within cultural institutions that have not acknowledged the works of Black students and Providence community members. Co-Curator and Brown Graduate Student Melaine Ferdinand-King spoke on the importance of this exhibit and its integration of local Providence artists. “For us, New Beginnings is a timely and relevant reminder of the need for reflection on the state of community relations, an interrogation of how we forge creative spaces and who we include when we discuss the Providence art scene.” Two years in the making, Melaine Ferdinand-King, alongside her co-curator, RISD student Rey Londres, began programming for the Biennial when they noticed a lack of black art for both students and black people in the greater providence. The relationship between institutions and the providence community is often extractive. This show presented an opportunity to merge these spaces, allowing artists from Brown and RISD to connect with providence artists that they otherwise would have never met. It also gave members of the Providence community the opportunity to showcase their work in the gallery. 

The Black Biennial also presented a unique opportunity for black artists to showcase their works and see their lives beyond an institutional context. I spoke with artist and recent Brown alumni Gala Prudent on the pressures of being black in the art world and the tendencies of non-black creators to simplify their art. Unlike other events, Gala cited this exhibit as a space of deep feeling. “It is refreshing to have an alternative space where the feeling is about rejoicing, and it’s about being alive together.” Students also stated the importance of creating work intended for a black audience. “I made the piece for black audiences, but up until now, there really wasn’t a space where it was solely for the celebration of a kind of black being.” (Njari Anderson) The black Biennial acted as that space of black expression for not only audience members but also for artists, as their work brought together the shared perspectives and experiences of black people while still expressing individuality and subjectivity. 

It’s important to note that while these kinds of spaces are important, there is still more work to be done. Despite the amount of programming put into this event, the co-curators and directors were not compensated for their labor. We must interrogate the ways BIPOC students have to expend their work to feel properly seen and represented in art spaces. 

But this show is still essential for everyone, specifically black students, to see. Njari Anderson noted the radical nature of this exhibition, an event taking place on RISD’s campus, right in front of the market square where black bodies were sold only 400 years ago. Gala Prudent hopes that people take away a sense of “ethical curiosity” from this event, as black and non-black people get to view the vulnerable works of black artists. Melaine Ferdinand-King cited inspiration as a feeling she hopes people take away from this exhibit. “I hope Black people, in particular, visit the Biennial and feel inspired. I hope they feel seen –  I hope they feel their work is important, artistic, or otherwise, and that their voice/story is needed.” (Melaine Ferdinand-King) 

Black art in all its forms, visual and performance-based, is a revolutionary and liberatory practice. This exhibit is an example of the multiplicity of blackness. It is a spotlight for black students, alumni, faculty, and black community members in Providence. It exists outside of the institutions that we as students are participants in. And most importantly, it is a refusal of a black monolith and a celebration of the black aliveness that exists in our very own community.

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