Black art matters

In a Chehalem Cultural Center exhibit, a dozen Black artists confront and expose racism, as well as speak to the experience of being human

We’re only halfway through the year, but I suspect that the new exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Black Matter, will rank among my favorites of 2021. There’s so much of it, filling the Parrish Gallery (the center’s largest visual art venue), and so much to linger over.

Black Matter features work by a dozen Black artists, the first such exhibit at the Chehalem that I’m aware of. The variety of media is rich: mixed media pieces, sculpture, digital prints, portrait and narrative painting, photography, and more. Given the notes that accompany the collection, one could easily spend the better part of an hour taking it all in.  The show runs through July 31, with an artists reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, July 2.

"She Wrote Nothing At All," by Jamila Clarke (limited edition archival digital print, 10 by 12 inches)
“She Wrote Nothing At All,” by Jamila Clarke (limited edition archival digital print, 10 by 12 inches).

It was curated by Oregon City artist Tammy Jo Wilson, co-founder and president of Art in Oregon, a statewide nonprofit that works to “foster culturally rich regional communities through partnerships, advocacy, and investment in artists, businesses, educational spaces, and community spaces.” Previously, she co-curated (with Owen Premore) An Artistic Heritage in 2019 in Lake Oswego and You are Not a Robot in 2020. The latter was intended for the Lakewood Festival for the Arts last summer but was moved online because of the pandemic.  

No pandemic (and apparently not even mask rules, if Gov. Kate Brown’s call for reopening June 30 holds) will prevent you from seeing Black Matter in person, and this was the first exhibit I’ve seen since March 2020 that was – for an art gallery — busy. People coming and going, art camps going on upstairs, guests taking in the art and talking about it. Although I’ve not attended any myself, I hear that the artist receptions, which have been moved off Zoom and back into the building, are well attended. After a long COVID hibernation, Yamhill County is waking up to our plentiful cultural possibilities.

The show notes are essential, given the cultural and political zeitgeist. Although Black Matter is by design intended to address imbalances in representation of Black artists, Wilson makes clear that the voices of these artists should be heard not because they’re Black, but because they’re artists:   

Black artists should be recognized as individuals, without the filter of what the Western art canon tells us Black Art is or should be. The artists in this exhibition are all important Black and African artists living and working here in Oregon. The goal of the exhibition is to broaden cultural awareness of and appreciation for art by Black artists in Oregon. This exhibit offers Black artists the opportunity to share artwork that expresses what’s in their hearts and minds without the requirement of a political agenda. Black artists are continuously expected to make art about race, racism, and social injustice. The artwork in this exhibition expresses more than their experience of living in a state and country rooted in systematic racism; their work speaks to the experience of being human.

The visitor to Black Matter is greeted by a large mixed media piece, White Bird Dancing. It’s got a rustic, otherworldly, indigenous/graffiti vibe — and yes, that’s a lot of adjectives, but it’s so visually dazzling that no single descriptor really works. Except for “dazzling,” which I realize only now I’ve used before for this artist: Central Oregon’s Jason Graham, aka MOsley WOtta. I saw another mixed media piece of his at the High Desert Museum just outside of Bend in 2019 that I wrote about at the end of this column. What a treat to have him land in Yamhill County!

"White Bird Dancing," by MO WO (MOsley WOtta) (mixed media, 3 by 4 feet, 2017).
“White Bird Dancing,” by MO WO (MOsley WOtta) (mixed media, 3 by 4 feet, 2017).

Other artists in the show include Zina Allen, John Adair, Jamila Clarke, Janique Crenshaw, Jeremy Okai Davis, Santigie and Sapata Fofana-Dura, Rinee Merritt, Keeva Moselle, Christine Miller, and Maya Vivas.

Although the notes indicate a desire to do more than expose and confront racism, some of the work obviously does. Moselle’s paired installations, which are virtually a show all by themselves, are powerful in that regard. Bringing together an astonishing variety of pieces and media, Promises and Passages are basically an exercise in decolonization. The text, Dear colored girl, is essential, but what commanded my attention, being a casual student of folklore, was this excerpt from Moselle’s notes:

Among magical and mystical creatures in folklore, art and media, very few are depicted as anything other than white. White is often depicted as holy, magical, majestic, powerful, good, and non-menacing. While blackness, the antithesis, is depicted as ugly, dangerous, and scary. When we imagine fairies, mermaids, and other mythical beings, they are white. My art challenges this, along with stereotypes about black women and their bodies, as I also promote body positivity through my work.

"Promises" (on the left) and “Passages” (right) are two installations by Keeva Moselle that combine a variety of media and objects to explore stereotypes about black and white. Photo by: David Bates
“Promises” (on the left) and “Passages” (right) are installations by Keeva Moselle that combine a variety of media and objects to explore stereotypes about black and white. Photo by: David Bates

The totality of Moselle’s vibrant installations is difficult to describe, and even a photograph showing the whole misses much and doesn’t do it justice. Some of it is beautiful, while other parts are rightfully disturbing, particularly a series of prints illustrating repugnant but all too familiar stereotypes, in the middle of which hangs a noose. It is visually, intellectually, and historically rich and must be seen in person to fully appreciate.

It is impossible to mention it all in this space, but I’d direct your attention to a second piece by MOsley WOtta on the north end of the exhibit. If you’re like me, you’ll spend some time there reading all there is to read, but don’t miss the line at the bottom: “Bet you walked right past Sara Siestreem’s work but she was here first … get it.” Artists looking out for other artists. And then (unless you didn’t walk right past it), return to the lobby gallery and check out Sonata by Sara Siestreem (Hanis-Coos), whose multi-media installation towers over you on the mezzanine. She is from the Umpqua River Valley along the Southern Oregon Coast and has been represented by Augen Gallery since 2010. Collectively, the two exhibitions highlight one of the Chehalem Center’s strong suits: bringing in challenging and exciting work by enormously talented artists from around Oregon to complement work by more local, Willamette Valley artists. 

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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