A Much-Needed Gift to the Community

Kim Alexis Newton, “Embraced Promises” (2020), cotton, Indonesian Batik cotton, fabric fusing, and quilting

“Testimony” Exhibit at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Showcases Brilliance of African American Artists in KC and Beyond

My first thoughts as I walked into the “Testimony” exhibit space at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art were those of familiarity, warmth and joy. Seeing such great representations of African American culture by folks from the community, our community, was not only refreshing, but a hopeful look into the future, as institutions like the Nelson-Atkins step up and recognize the greatness of artists who have long fought to be a part of the greater artistic conversation but have only until recently been given an opportunity to do so.

The exhibit brings together 35 brilliant artists from the African American Artists Collective working in multiple disciplines from poetry, to textile, to sculpture, music, photography and video. With their humble beginnings as a group of local artists who first met at a gathering around a table at Gates Bar-B-Q, the group now has more than 150 members working in solidarity to increase the visibility of African American and Black artists throughout Kansas City and beyond.

Harold Smith, “Friday Night Blues” (2021), acrylic, spray paint and fabric on canvas (from the artist)

Seeing such great representations of African American culture by folks from the community, our community, was not only refreshing but a hopeful look into the future. . .

Right out of the gate I was greeted by an interactive display welcoming attendees to the exhibition. I usually skip these and head right to the show and then do a double take, but this time I was pulled in by the sleek design and presentation that was both a warm-up for what was in store and provided necessary background information for the exhibit. I had seen work from the collective in many spaces before, but this was truly fitting for an organization of their stature; it set the tone, with an impressive trailer getting you ready for what you were about to receive. As I rounded the corner into the gallery, I was immediately taken by “Embraced Promises” by Kim Alexis Newton, a touching image of a mother hugging her son, who holds a Black Lives Matter sign. An emphatic piece, the quilt is one of many in the show and leads the viewer to an emotional space that we all understand, parents’ love for their children.

The gallery space, which I had seen before many times, hosting many different shows, was now full of familiar energy. As I gazed upon the works of many artists I consider friends, I felt the same warmth and joy I had often shared with many of the artists, and I smiled inside because I knew this was a much-needed gift to the community. This was important, this was beautiful, this was necessary: seeing works by multiple generations of African American artists coming together to testify. I had the opportunity to speak with the show’s curator, Stephanie Fox Knappe, prior to my second visit, and she stated, “The title came from early discussions with core members and came up several times in conversations with the artists during preparation for the show.”

Michael A. Brantley, “A Seat at the Table” (2021), acrylic and oil on canvas (from the artist)

The works, diverse in medium, hold the space superbly. Local stalwarts like Harold Smith and his “Friday Night Blues” give the viewers a humble perspective on the Black experience while displaying his delicate mastery of collage and his Taylor-esque robust brush strokes. There are glimpses of Afro-Futurisim in the works of JT Daniels and Juliette Hemingway, who both wonderfully take the viewer to special yet familiar realms, reinforcing a key element within the show, the intergenerational reflection that ties us all together. Sculptor Ed Dwight provides a fitting tribute with “Birth of the Blues,” in which I swear I can see Lonnie McFadden blowing his horn at Phoenix. It is this intimacy of familial and community bonds that makes this show so special, so necessary.

My favorites from the show include “A Seat at the Table” by Michael Brantley, a riveting take on generational servitude, but you can tell by the eyes of the subjects that the dish being served might not be the one you were expecting. The stark black background has a foundational feel that says we belong. Next up is “Block and Delete” by Arie Dee Monroe, a refreshing look at Black “Pop Art.” In her piece, the artist takes you on a trip into the world of unsolicited advances so many women face online. The piece allows for the viewer to see through a series of screen shots how the subject engages with online harassment. Don’t let the lighthearted visuals fool you; this piece speaks volumes on the expanded spaces where disrespect and abuse occur at alarming rates. And finally, “Here to Stay” by Ramona Elizabeth Davis is a wonderful look at the entire diaspora. With its stained-glass church feel, this piece can tell you so much if you pay attention, from our origins, our travels, our struggles and the “I AM’s” which bring us full circle.

JT Daniels, “Untitled (B@ng!N’ Hair-do #7)” (2017), acrylic, spray paint and acrylic paint marker on canvas (from the artist
Juliette Hemingway, “#” (2021), digital, mixed media and augmented reality (from the artist)

I asked Curator Stephanie Fox Knappe during our interview what was the hardest part about bringing this show together, to which she replied, “The biggest challenge was that many of the artists were in the process of creating new work, so it was very exciting to be creating a show with works not yet completed.” Personally, knowing the depths of talent within the AAAC, editing that content into a program fit for presentation to the public is no small feat. Speaking with one of the founding members of the collective, Sara Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, over the phone, my first words were “thank you for bringing this gift of our culture to the masses, and for being a pivotal element in the development of an expanded discussion on art in the community and centering the brilliance of Black artists who are often overlooked.”

It is through this type of partnership that I hope we can see more commonality, which in turn will lead to a better understanding and appreciation for Black art within the arts ecosystem. “The museum has committed to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in every department and is focused on how our internal culture can make a shift. I hope this exhibition shows that we are trying,” says Stephanie Fox Knappe.

Arie Dee Monroe, “Block and Delete” (2021), digital media (clip studio paint, mixed media) on canvas

Ultimately what “Testimony” provides is an opportunity for growth, from both an institutional and personal level. Take your family, take your friends, take yourself to see something special created by your brothers and sisters in the community. Look for things familiar, feel the warmth and understand the commonality of family values, and lastly participate in the joy that is “Testimony.” In the words of Poet Glenn North, whose piece “Blackness To Affinity” reads like an Afro-Futurist Manual, always remember to “Dig Me Like You Dig My Culture.”

“Testimony, African American Artists Collective” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through March 27, 2022. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

Ramona Elizabeth Davis, “Here to Stay” (2021), acrylic and mixed media on canvas (from the artist)

In conjunction with the exhibition, the African American Artists Collective with Moxie Solutions Development,
21c Museum Hotels and Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, is presenting a 10-month conversation series, “Testimony: The Misrepresentation of Black Men and Boys,” dedicated to “information, respect and progress.” The format comprises a daytime conversation on topics including family, education, and physical, mental, and financial health, followed by an evening social that connects individuals and organizations dedicated to making progress on the topics discussed.

Click here to read about the July 30 inaugural conversation, “Relationships and Supportive Networks.” Coming up in September and October, a conversation on “Politics” will be held from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, followed by a social from 7 to 9 p.m. at the 21c Museum Hotel. The same venues will host the Oct. 14 conversation and social on “Mental Health.”

To register for upcoming events and to see a full schedule of conversations into 2022, visit www.aaackc.org.

Dwight Smith

Major Dwight O. Smith (US ARMY Retired) works as the Intake Branch Chief for the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division at The Department of Housing and Urban Development and is an avid collector of fine art created specifically by women and artists of color.

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