After years of living on the coasts Alisha B. Wormsley returned to the Pittsburgh neighborhood where she grew up to participate in a community-based artist residency. She had long been interested in the intersection of science-fiction and Black narratives, especially of and by women. Sometimes referred to as Afro-futurism, it is a genre that visualizes the continuity and resilience of Black futures.
Wormsley was working with local kids on her experimental science-fiction films in some of the run-down areas of the neighborhood that already had a post-apocalyptic look. Part of the conversation was about the absence of Black people in mainstream sci-fi films. The artist found herself ranting to the kids when she blurted out, “There are Black people in the future.” It dropped like a holy mantra and quickly evolved into a movement. When the statement was placed on a billboard in a newly gentrified, historically Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, only to be controversially removed by developers, the artist secured funding to expand the text into a larger project by inviting artists to respond and replicate the message wherever Black people are. That includes Kansas City, where Goethe Pop Up is presenting Wormsley’s “There are Black people in the future” billboard at Broadway Blvd. and Pershing Rd.
Enter emerging Kansas City artist and curator Jada Patterson. Over the summer of 2020 when Black voices were rising up in cities all over the United States, Patterson saw Wormsley’s collaborative project as a way to uplift these voices in Kansas City. With local support from Goethe Pop Up, Wormsley and Patterson invited nine local BIPOC artists to react to the installation of the billboard in the heart of the Crossroads Arts District. To emphasize the public facing nature of the project, Goethe Pop Up’s glass exterior was offered as an exhibition site — a pandemic friendly, prime location on Main Street right along the streetcar line.
Patterson selected an inclusive mix of Kansas City artists who work in both visual and text-based media. It was important to her to have multiracial and intergenerational perspectives represented as well. The only catch was they had two weeks to create their responses. The artists’ compelling responses came in eight-by-four-foot vertical sections covering the entire glass façade of Goethe Pop Up.
Lawrence based Indigenous artist Mona Cliff (A’niiih/Assinaboine) rendered Wormsley’s original text as a literal translation into the Osage writing system. Initially painted in acrylic, the four-panel work functions as a visual acknowledgement of the Osage homelands where Kansas City now stands. The eye-catching yellow-orange characters of the Osage alphabet pop against an oceanic blue background layered with geometric forms drawn from Osage regalia and ribbon work. The act of reiterating the core message in an Indigenous language reframes the project in a larger context: a shared experience of oppression and the ongoing need for representation in an often hostile, dominant culture.
Spoken word artist Sheri Purpose Hall collaborated with visual artist Glyneisha Johnson in a multi-media work combining poetry with installation photography. Hall’s moving poem “Turned Tables” speaks of hard=earned wisdom passed down from mother to daughter through family artifacts — precious reminders of beloved ancestors and lifeways — and how these objects, however humble, are curated in the domestic spaces of Black people. Johnson’s companion work, “Herstory,” centers the very same domestic Black interiors in warm, rich detail. We see the artist majestically dressed, in two different poses gazing directly at the viewer in a constructed wood=paneled living space. Johnson’s elegant dual self-portrait appears torn across the top, revealing the irregular columns of the poetic text beneath. Just as the image reveals, the poem concludes with a lesson on concealment, the protective impulse that preserves history and culture for future generations.
Jada Patterson and Izsys Archer found playful inspiration in a stack of old hair magazines. In recognizing the importance of hair to collective Black identity as well as a highly expressive medium of bodily creativity, their collaboration involved experimenting with how images of Black hair might appear in the future. In the artist talk Archer commented on their process as “maternally rooted oral communication that preserves and passes down our histories and in that same light promises a future.” Using a flatbed scanner to capture details of braids, brows, curls and twists, they created a collage of close-ups pointing to a future welcoming of new colors, textures and shapes.
José Faus, adept as a visual artist, writer and performer, revisited work he had done related to the trial of “The Amistad” slave ship rebellion, argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1841. The extraordinary case intensified the national debate about African slavery in the Americas. Faus, ever interested in language, based his acrylic poem/painting on a dichotomous word found in the trial transcript. Bombazine, a black fabric typically used for lawyer’s robes or mourning garments was also used to shroud the corpse of Kura, one of the Mende captives who died on board the ship. Above a turbulent painted background of abstract carnage, the words and the historical events still resonate into the unresolved struggle for racial justice.
Arianna Bonner’s sensuous life-size portrait of non-binary model Andi Gee foregrounds the beauty and dignity of the queer Black body. The haunting diptych in black and white consists of Gee clad in a shimmering satin garment in an open field. They candidly meet our gaze while their gestures of arms and hands suggest mixture of pride and reticence. In the second image, with a coy sidelong glance, they turn away from Bonner’s low angle lens. Bonner sensitively probes this mysterious, intimate space. Like a rare butterfly sighting, it feels a privilege to behold.
Poetry is Jessica Ayala’s native tongue and her uplifting text addresses the “ancestral light” of Black people across time. During the pandemic, the Columbian American spoken word artist took her practice to the Missouri riverfront to dance, sing, pray and write. There she struck a spiritual chord meditating on the solidarity of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples. “Mi lucha es tu lucha,” she stated in the artist talk.
“KC Studio” readers will know the contributions of painter, writer and educator Harold Smith. His typographic treatment of the project text superimposed images from his powerful “Can You See Me?” paintings onto two stacked columns of words. Smith’s expressive handling of paint can be seen in the eyes and facial features of the “invisible” Black men that he makes poignantly visible. While the words are intentionally illegible, the message merges with the smoldering power of witness and vision in Smith’s paintings.
Taken as whole, this collective response to “There Will Be Black People in the Future” has everything to do with reclaiming, owning and amplifying BIPOC narratives in a time of urgency and unrest. As an antidote to the misleading mass media monolith, this project passionately returns our gaze and asks us to learn from the profound intergenerational, multicultural, intersectional experiences of artists of color. In the looking, the truth of the message is easy enough to see.
“There Will Be Black People in the Future” installation will be on display and available to view 24/7 from outside Goethe Pop Up Kansas City, 1914 Main St., through January 31. For more information, www.goethe.de/ins/us/en/sta/ppk.html.