It’s often hard to visit a group exhibition and not feel a little overwhelmed, but entering the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts last month, I was quickly absorbed by a vivid canvas by Kimberly Becoat titled, “Soon Henrietta Come Hela.” Beside the piece, a short description explained that in 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and began treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Unbeknownst to her, doctors had taken a sample of her cancer cells to use in future research. In Becoat’s mixed-media work, the phrase “the seed that planted itself in water and blood” is embedded amid multicolored splatters and paintings of free-floating cancer cells and amaranthine flowers.
The curator, Kimberli Gant, paired each artist in the exhibition, Ain’t I A Woman? (through December 19), with a poet from The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. This was Gant’s way to push each artist, whether male or female, to reflect on the interiority of black women in their work. As Gant told me, “I specifically told the artists: you cannot reference Josephine Baker or �€˜Saartjie’ Baartman (Hottentot Venus) at all.” Gant laughed, adding: “I just wanted to get people thinking in a slightly different way.”
Even art nerds can probably count the number of famous female African-American artists on their fingers, so it’s refreshing to wander through a space filled with so many different takes on the experience.
The most successful pieces engage the theme with historical references. Elizabeth Colomba‘s oil painting “The Missive” shows a weary-looking woman in a blue dress with a letter in her lap. This reinterpretation of Albrecht Dürer’s Renaissance-era engraving”Melancholia I” puts an educated African-American woman amid the iconography of the time, disrupting the narrative. Phoenix Savage‘s piece, “Antithesis,” is even more straightforward: a series of declarative sentences surrounds bright, plump pillows with gleaming silver eggs on top. Savage said that the piece was a riff on the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, explaining, “Black women don’t get the chance to take the test. We’re constantly enduring.” Kenya (Robinson)‘s piece, “Such Fragments”—in which long nylon strings hang from cracked porcelain vases with poetry written on their broken edges—is grippingly abstract, introducing notions of suffering, strength, and reinvention.
Themes like exploitation, denial and endurance are all present in the exhibition, but the best works move beyond the didactic and engage the viewer in a shared experience. Many of the pieces here are able to both provoke and engage, which is exactly what art needs to do.
(images courtesy the artists, MoCADA)