As Chelsea Reopens, a New Exhibition Looks at the Experience of Living in a Black Body
After months of unprecedented change while the novel coronavirus pandemic transformed daily life, the art world has begun inviting the public to observe the works of their favorite artists in person once again. Implementing a safe and socially distanced framework, galleries are starting to show work “in real life.”
From August 20th through September 8th, New York’s 525 Studios in Chelsea will be a part of this shift. The space is hosting a multi-week celebration of the arts—and more specifically, of Black beauty in modern-day America—in its “VOICES” exhibition. All ticket sales—and 10 percent of all art sales—will go to the Black Artist Fund and ArtStart. The former is an initiative meant to directly support Black artists and arts organizations, in an effort to fight systemic inequity, while the latter promotes an integrated, educational, and sustainable approach to youth arts programming.
Curated by art advisor Anwarii Musa, “VOICES” showcases a hand-selected group of contemporary artists whose works illustrate the power of the Black body. “Its soul exhorts energy,” explained Musa. “The sun and earth amplify its rich melanin tone. As I think about this and all of the generational suffering, I’m reminded of the courage and fortitude that has helped us arrive at this point in our journey.” Musa went on to explain that the same toughness—the same resilience—behind the Black Lives Matter movement took hold in previous centuries, when these artists’ ancestors too faced marked trauma that shaped their daily lives.
There’s still ample progress to be made, but “VOICES” represents an empowering step in the right direction. The exhibition’s curatorial statement examines the notion of “exploring that same Black body,” in large part by showcasing its experiences in the modern era. The message is one of strength, which is apparent in the works of the exhibition’s featured artists—lauded talent like Dominic Chambers, Collin Sekajugo, Delphine Diallo, Mark C., Phyllis Stephens, Shaunte Gates, and YoYo Lander. There’s an overwhelming sense of physicality throughout, and yet the message is clear: “We Are Strong.”
Esteban Whiteside, Cops Plant Drugs, 2020. Courtesy of Richard Beavers Gallery and Studio 525.
Consider Baltimore-based artist Amani Lewis’s vibrant canvases. Rampant with color, her work is designed to be almost visceral—abstract yet provocative, all while emphasizing her subject’s connection with the environment and the viewer.
“VOICES” attendees will also have the opportunity to observe more figurative works, including Derrick Adams’s powerful Colin Kaepernick (2018)—an oil-on-canvas named for the polarizing, celebrated NFL quarterback. The piece integrates the stark symbolism of emojis atop a black background, inviting viewers to join in the subject’s confidence and notoriety.
Esteban Whiteside’s Cops Plant Drugs #2 (2020) features a pair of Black men behind bars in bright orange jumpsuits that, at first glance, resemble facial features superimposed against the flower taking center stage. A metaphor for police corruption and systemic racism, Whiteside’s use of color immediately pulls the viewer in, offering an inspiring and outright unique take on the messaging that’s become so prevalent in 2020.
Photography aficionados will be drawn to the works of Devin Allen and Steven “Sweatpants” Irby, respectively, whose black-and-white photographs of the late-spring, early-summer protests captivate at first glance. Allen’s Untitled (2020), a photo print mounted on aluminum, features a group of people transporting a coffin down the street mid-demonstration, their features somber, some of the subjects in masks. A Black Lives Matter sign looms in the background; the viewer can’t help but take in all the moving parts Allen has so expertly captured.
Irby, meanwhile—under the name “Steve Sweatpants”—offers a more distanced take. Documenting JUNETEENTH (2020) from a wider angle, Irby provides a unique look at the movement from an almost aerial view. As a group of demonstrators gather, blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, the photographer makes a commentary on how Black Lives Matter has become one with our cities nationwide, fusing, almost, with the streets and architectural elements of America’s urban areas.
“VOICES” takes a multimedia approach, and sculpture too plays a key role in the exhibition. Jeffrey Meris’s plaster body cast The Block is Hot (2019) integrates steel, aircraft cables, an AC motor, a concrete block, and other industrial elements. Named after the rapper Lil Wayne’s debut album, this intricate piece, according to the artist, modulates the ideas of what “gender performativity is, that’s often associated with Black men.” The work is a deeply physical experience interpolating the racial violence that Black bodies have continued to endure—and the effect is profound.
The show also focuses on the contrast of movement and stillness. Attendees will experience the strength of LaToya Hobbs’s Kafinwe (2019), featuring a woman in glasses and traditional African attire. The subject portrayed in the acrylic, collage, and relief carving on wood panel asserts a firm gaze directed nearly past the viewer, but in a fashion that still fosters a deep sense of connection. In contrast, Nate Lewis’s abstract Signaling, 40 (2020), an inkjet print focused on the body in motion, cements the fluidity of shape-shifting—that is, of becoming who we wish to be. The splash of color of the body’s organs, the negative space portrayed in the torso, and the power of the arms, hands, and spine only reinforce the beauty of Black bodies, and of what it means to exist in the world today.
Art has always inspired an open dialogue, and it wouldn’t make sense to host this social justice–focused, post-COVID-19 exhibition without a focus on candid conversation. And so “VOICES,” in addition to showcasing the works of emerging Black artists, features a number of conversations facilitated by Natasha Roberts. The exhibition’s live panel includes names like Zachary Tye Richardson, Che Morales, Jenée-Daria Strand, Jeffrey Meris, and Natasha Becker; these conversations are all accompanied by Instagram Lives from Daphne Dallo, LaToya Hobbs, and Phyllis Stephens.
For those who do attend, “VOICES” will certainly be a welcome return to the pleasure of seeing art in person. The artists and works on display are at times daunting, while at others, they are incredibly beautiful. In showcasing the power of the Black body, the work in the show feels both timely and timeless all at once.