Black [genus, genesis, genius]

BCC: BrownHall Artists at the Multnomah Central Library

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Black [genus, genesis, genius] is a group exhibition in the Collins Gallery at the Multnomah County Central Library. BCC: BrownHall, Portland’s only black creative collective, put together a ‘curated installation of Black creatives mobilizing visual art, printed materials, movement, and voice to honor and celebrate the intersection of interests, histories, and cultural production of our community.’ Including more than 20 local artists with national reputations, Black [genus, genesis, genius] is full of painting, drawing, poetry, photography, video, performance and more bursting out of the tasteful glass boxes they’re displayed in.

You can only really experience it all if you go there yourself, but here are a few works and their artists to entice you over to SW 10th and Yamhill and up those three grand flights of stairs or elevators.

Renee Mitchell left an award-winning newspaper career at The Oregonian to become a fulltime artist in 2008. Of her contribution to the show she says, “my portion of the exhibit is titled Product of a Strong Black Woman in tribute to the shoulders of my mother and other black women I have stood on to get where I am. I’m so proud to be a part of this amazing collaborative that showcases black art.”

Product of a Strong Black Woman is shown in the first two images of the slideshow above, though you have to be there to walk around the display to see all that isn’t captured in the photography. Details that stood out to me are the photograph of a black woman – whose face has been replaced by an African mask embalm – nursing a white baby, the black power fist adorned in spiritual cowrie shells, and the caged blue bird, which recalls Maya Angelou and Paul Lawrence Dunbar‘s famous poems.

The third image in the slide show is a grouping of panoramic shots by Elijah Hasan, Portland native and media artist. Elijah introduces an alternative to the traditional approaches in panorama photography. His exhibit entitled Urbanorama resists the urge to step back from the subject and instead is shot from thespot of inspiration. Utilizing a 180-degree rotation, the series of images captures a unique but authentic photograph in which peripherals are reclaimed. You have to attend to the images in person to read his description of what happened to him while taking the photograph that shows the alignment of the Federal Building and the Courthouse downtown. It’s a lesson in the lack of protection that artistry affords people of color—Photographing while Black is a variant of Driving while Black.

Fourth in the slideshow is an image of the collaborative poem installation by Samiya Bashir and Cumbersome Multiples, who share a mutual admiration for folk hero John Henry. In a sense, he introduced them. Bashir’s Pushcart Prize nominated poem, “Coronagraphy,” delivers on its promise to illuminate the interior voices of Polly Ann and her husband John Henry, the legendary steel driving man. In this collaboration, as well as through her collection of poems entitled Laws of the Blackbody, Cumbersome Multiples engages with her poetry in two distinct ways: first, through real-time print response to the poems’ call during performance; second, by producing limited-edition broadsides. The two print elements will develop alongside the Coronagraphy performance—taking into account the rhythm of the text through typography. The interaction of the text and the typography alone is worth a visit to the show!

Aasha Benton is the artist both of the brightly colored paintings done of children in a closely-cropped portrait style and the regal women in full-length dresses who could be Greek muses or a R&B group like The Supremes. Her work is inspired from the music and history of black culture, which is seen through the use of shapes and bright colors that bring energy, movement, and strength to her subject matter. A young artist, I’d expect to keep seeing her work around town as she grows into her vision and talents on display at the Collin’s Gallery.

Concluding the slide show is work by Jamondria Harris, a black/Afro-indigenous/mixed-blood-of-conquest poet and artist living in Portland.  Her work engages with the construction of desire and black femininity, afro-surrealism, afro-pessimism, iterating a decolonizing poetics, and visioning African diasporic futures as radical liberatory praxis.  She has been published in multiple local and national literary journals, is a VONA Berkeley writers of color workshop alum, and most recently created and curates an Afro-futuristic/Afro-surrealist multi-disciplinary performance project called Solar Throat. Her installation ‘are negroes more amorous than whites?‘ lures in viewers with gold paper, red hearts, and spindly gold wire wrapped around an unfurling scroll that carries the title text, ‘are negroes more amorous than whites?’ Her use of beauty draws the viewer into considering a question that harkens back to historically coded language used to explain why black peoples require “civilizing” by decidedly less amorous whites.

While we’re at the end of the slideshow, we’re not at the end of the work included in the show. Additional artists include Andre Middleton, a film and video artist, whose contribution is a short film called “In So Many Words.” In this video Andrew assembled a diverse cast of citizens to speak the words of Frederick  Douglas’s “What the Fourth of July Means to the Negro.” Through written over 100 years ago this amazing speech decrying the oppression of slavery still rings true today.

Lin Lucas is a multi-disciplinary artists whose comics and illustrations have been such publications as The Stranger, Top Shelf Comics anthologies, the Xeric Award-winning Two-Fisted Science, The Psychology of Race, and the French anthology Le Dernier Neurone. The beautiful 5-page story on display in the Collins Gallery is an excerpt from “Agents of the Sky,” story published in 1998, adapted from a popular African American folk tale of liberation and hope.

The burdens of the past shape the world we build in the present. As an artist Sharita Towne is interested in unpacking these burdens, in understanding how they mold our present selves, and in trying to give rise to a collective catharsis. To this end she has undertaken work at former concentration camps and memorials in Germany, in Saharawi Refugee camps in Algeria, in favelas and cultural centers in Brazil, and within her own family. She works in education, printmaking, video, and is currently producing a collection of stereo photography: Heimweh, Fernweh, and places in between.

Aisha Edwards is a Jamaican American writer, activist, therapist and general collector of small, unnoticed things. She has published poetry and essays in small journals in the Pacific Northwest and Michigan, her two long term homes. She is a former contributor to Folks Press Magazine. Although, she mainly identifies as a writer and therapist, she dabbles in performance art from time to time.

Brian Parker is an author with ten years of experience in design and illustration. He’s published more than a dozen books, including his first novel length work, Crow in the Hollow, and a graphic novel series You Can Rely on Platypi. Of his work he says, “I’m always trying to learn and grow in my craft, and find that I am happiest when I’m striving to bring the works of my imagination to life.” The Collins Gallery includes examples of his graphic works and design.

Black [genus, genesis, genius] is on view in the Collins Gallery on the third floor of the Multnomah Central Library through Sunday, March 8. Come see a special performance all new material in a second installment of poetry, performance art and video presentation from the members of Black Creative Collective: Brownhall, Portland’s only African American Creative Collective this Saturday, February 28, from 2-4pm at the North Portland Library.

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