“Real Black: A spectrum of the Black present,” UMKC Gallery of Art

I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real, if you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we are both myths.” —Sun Ra

While Sun-Ra claimed to be from Saturn and passed away in 1993, the wide-ranging exhibit “Real Black: A spectrum of the Black present” almost feels like it is responding to the words of the Afro-futurist jazz legend.

UMKC art student Shaka Myrick, co-curator of the exhibit with Davin Watne and Emma Thomas, states that she would like viewers to leave thinking “We are not simply #BLM but we are real humans living in america attempting to live a ‘normal’ life with the compounding injustices of racism and sexism. But with this we are also people with an intrinsic ability to find fantasy and beauty in all of their experiences.”

The first work in the exhibit, “pATRIOT,” a striking oil painting by Evan Jackson, is both powerful and poignant. Jackson, a celebrated painter and muralist who took his own life on October 2 of this year, presents a monochromatic Black male in front of a large American flag as if he is saying the Pledge of Allegiance. While the subject is painted in shades of gray, crimson seeps from between the fingers over his heart, reminding us of the high cost that Black Americans have paid simply to enjoy the rights they are entitled to as citizens.

Three photographic prints by Danielle Randle capture this summer’s protests. A picture of a pensive Black police officer is the first image. The next displays a large group of protestors riding the front hood and roof of a jeep. The trio concludes with a photograph of a young white male lying in the street with his hands behind his back in protest. The images are a strong statement about the complexities of Black social protest.

“We selected the work to fit into three areas,” Myrick stated, “works which highlight acts of social justice, the beauty of Black reality, as well as works which focus on the future “

The beauty of Black reality is evident in ceramic and assemblage works by Jada Patterson, along with digital prints by Ari Bonner. “Same Lips,” an assemblage work by Patterson constructed from wood, acrylic, xerox prints, black soap, shea butter, beeswax, plaster and kanekalon hair, features a series of lips in various shades yet undeniably Black. Here, Patterson celebrates and almost deifies what has often been a source of ridicule and scorn towards Blacks.

Bonner’s intimate prints of herself and her partner highlight one of the goals of the curators to “highlight the current and day-to-day realities of the Black community.”

Each work in this exhibit is a standout. Kat Looney’s, “In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue” uses oil on canvas to echo a scene from the Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight.” A lone figure peering at the viewer from a luminescent sea of black and blues evokes thoughts of intimacy, acceptance and the loneliness of Blackness.

While the first half of the exhibit explores the Black present, the second half explores the Black future, introduced by Aaron Cecil’s large neo-expressionist mixed media works rich with vibrant and colorful cartoon characters, emojis, pop culture imagery, iconography and Afrofuturistic comments. In the midst of these large engaging works, Cecil’s curious incorporation of the phrase “Gullah Gechee Forever” pays homage to the little known descendants of slaves who have created and sustained their own community in the Carolina coastlands.

Makayla Booker’s, “Blaque 365: Group Dynamics series” explores “framily” (friends as family) in a series of digital prints.

William Toney’s conceptual pieces pair photographs of his worn clothes with hats covered in money and tobacco. In his artist’s statement, he states “The convergence of materials, such as denim, cotton and tobacco, refer to their troubling presence in American history, while maintaining the celebratory status of their more current position in popular culture and fashion.”

Rounding out the show, “Oroso” and “Cover Girl,” two vibrant works by muralist JT Daniels, celebrate Black womanhood in powerful form. Kat Looney’s oil on canvas “On Read” presents a Black man using a phone. The absence of the subject’s face and the focus on his hands, shirt and phone evoke notions of Blackness, identity, and class in the cyberage. Frank Norfleet, probably the oldest artist in the show, is represented by the most traditional work in the exhibit, an oil on canvas painting titled “Andrea.”

Five large digital prints from Phil “Sike Style” Shafer’s “March Together” are installed in the hallway outside the gallery. Viewable through tall, squeaky clean windows, the prints consist mostly of words and slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Get Up Stand Up” and “March Together” bundled with digital imagery.

In the same way that Evan Jackson’s “pATRIOT” provided a poignant prologue to this exhibit, Shafer’s “March Together” prints provide us with an epilogue of promise. And it is from deep within the beautifully dangerous space between this poignancy and promise that these works come forward and invite us in.

“Black people and our experiences are art” – Kat Looney

“Real Black: a spectrum of the Black present” continues at the UMKC Gallery of Art, 5015 Holmes St., Fine Arts 203, through Dec. 11. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. For more information, 816.235.1502 or info.umkc.edu/gallery.

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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