‘One History, Two Versions’ at the Spencer Museum of Art

Nick Cave and Bob Faust, “Head Dressed” (2019), color lithograph (museum purchase: Peter T. Bohan Art Acquisition Fund, 2020.0048, image courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas)

Contemporary artists explore the beauty of Blackness in the face of depravity

In war, things of beauty are reduced to chaos, their aesthetic and cultural benefit taken from us forever, leaving only memories of what was and a void where there once sat hope for the future.

Art is the opposite of war.

In art, things of beauty are created from the chaos, transforming memories of what once was and hopes for the future into things of aesthetic and cultural benefit.

Deborah Roberts, “One history, two versions (Bullet Points)” (2019), screen print (courtesy of the Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection, Kansas City, Missouri)

These transformations come to the fore in “One History, Two Versions,” a companion exhibition to the traveling exhibit, “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See,” at the Spencer Museum of Art. Featuring works by contemporary Black artists, the show “expands on themes in the traveling (Till) exhibition including Black life, Black love, media representation, and activism,” according to the museum website, and “draws on Emmett and Mamie’s legacies to explore both historical and contemporary events of racial violence and racial justice movements.”

The titular work in this exhibition, “One history, two versions (Bullet Points),” is a striking collage screen print from 2019 by Deborah Roberts, who uses the face of a Black doll, a grayscale image of Dr. Martin Luther King’s arm, and the American flag to reference struggle, hope, homage and the vulnerability of Blackness under the constant glare of the white gaze. By surrounding the subject with empty space, Roberts speaks to the constant inner sense of oppression experienced when living under this gaze. Her inclusion of the grayscale image of Dr. King’s arm from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial speaks to the artist’s belief in paying homage to ancestors.

Meleko Mokgosi, “Acts of Resistance IV” (2018), oil, canvas (courtesy of the Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection, Kansas City, Missouri)

“Acts of Resistance IV,” an oil painting by Botswana-born painter Meleko Mokgosi, combines delicate hues and inventive composition to effectively portray those quiet acts of activism that tilt the needle of social justice.

Space and shading create a peaceful mood in his portrayal of a seated young woman looking at her cellphone. Above her hangs a Black Madonna and child in a round frame, while footage of apartheid protestors in South Africa plays in black and white on a small television beside her. The unbossed and unbothered demeanor of the female subject speaks to the quiet and confident determination present in Black social activism.

“I wanted to examine both formal and informal forms of resistance, placing equal emphasis on both,” Mokgosi says in his statement. “In this context, I would define resistance as any instance where a subject rejects and refuses to give in to the oppression of her spirit. Where formal resistance takes aim at the state and institutional forces, informal resistance encompasses everyday acts, both unconscious and conscious.”

Simone Saunders, “She Reveals (Truth)” (2022), hand-tufted velvet, acrylic and wool yarn (courtesy of the Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection, Kansas City, Missouri)

In “She Reveals (Truth),” textile artist Simone Saunders, a 2020 fiber arts graduate of Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada, uses hand-tufted velvet, acrylic and wool yarn on rug warp to present an energizing portrait of Black femininity. “When I envision a textile, storytelling is my foundation,” she says. “My inspiration stems from narratives that amplify Black womanhood, belonging, and ancestorship.”

Here, a young woman, presented as an entirely black form enlivened by electric white lines that create a sense of depth, gazes confidently into the sky as she crouches in a lush garden of large flowers, plants and bees. Beside her, a curious fox sits rapt at attention. Behind them, the word “Truth” in huge letters hovers in front of a sky constructed from purple and blue color fields. By presenting the subject in black and white, Saunders differentiates her from the environment, while her vulnerable pose and close proximity to the fox prove that she belongs. She is the truth … in black and white.

TJ Reynolds, “Emmett Till” (2022), acrylic, paper (courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis)

“Black Swan,” a 2006 inkjet print by the late Terry Adkins, presents a series of labels from jazz and blues records from the time of the Harlem Renaissance. It is named after Black Swan Records, which opened in 1921 as the first Black-owned record label. This work speaks to the existence of Black self-determination during the time of the Emmett Till murder and the rich cultural environment of Black Chicago that Till was raised in.

Adkins, a 1979 MFA recipient from the University of Kentucky, grew up in a musical home and played the saxophone and guitar. His work was influenced by jazz and blues luminaries such as John Coltrane and Nina Simone. Adkins also played in a free jazz band led by Yahya Abdul-Majid of the Sun Ra Arkestra. According to the artist, “My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be and sculpture as ethereal as music is.”

In addition to being a feast for the eyes, the exhibition is thought-provoking on a level that encourages further study. One work, a quilt by NedRa Bonds titled “A Kiss from the Ancestors,” speaks to the development of jazz, with its African rhythms and European melody. This quilt took Bonds more than two years to create. Said Bonds, “I created these little beaded masks that were an inch square, and after I’d created about 40 of them, I decided to put them all together into a face.”

While war reduces beauty to ashes, art turns ashes into beauty. The murder of Emmett Till and the racial climate surrounding it is stomach-turning in its depravity. However, this exhibition reminds us of the beauty of Blackness in the face of such depravity.

It brings forth beauty from ashes.

“One History, Two Versions” continues at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas through June 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, 785.864.4710 or www.spencerart.ku.edu.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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