Oregon Cultural Trust

Black History IS History? Of course.

A Multnomah Arts Center exhibit of work by Black Northwest artists delves into the past to create a celebration of Black creativity in the present.

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J’reyesha Brannon, “Black Liberation,” mixed media assemblage, 2021. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

Black History IS History, the title of the current exhibition in the gallery of the Multnomah Arts Center in Portland’s Multnomah Village neighborhood, ought to be both obvious and a little redundant: Well, of course it is.

But we live in a time of whitewashing and erasing of both the present and the past, of pretending that obvious things never happened, of reinventing the “real” — a time when, for heaven’s sake, books by Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Angie Thomas, Richard Wright and Maya Angelou have been banned from libraries. A time when the governor of the state of Florida has proclaimed the advantages of slavery to the enslaved as an opportunity to learn vital job skills. Under such circumstances the title becomes both a necessary assertion and an adamant proclamation: “Go ahead. Try to deny it. We defy your denial.”

Left: Nyasha Madamombe, “Zuva,” ceramics, acrylic, fabric beads, 2019. Right: LaVerne Lewis, “Jambalaya,” art quilt made from Ghanaian and West African wax print fabric, 2021. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

Black history in the United States is, of course, a complex and deep-seeded thing. It involves the infamous 1619 — the year that the first slave ship from Africa arrived in the American colonies, and the jumping-off point of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s ambitious project to bring the reality of the nation’s racial history and relations to light — and the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and the Great Migration to the North and the more gradual modern remigration to such southern centers of Black culture as Atlanta, and the Ku Klux Klan and far too many lynchings to count, and the civil rights movement, and urban redlining of properties and much, much more, including the nurturing and growth of the great American musical forms of the blues and jazz and gospel and the literary and musical and visual accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance and on and on, a bright quilt of culture shaped by the realities of its past and shaping in turn the larger national culture of which it’s a part. All histories are complex and knotted. American Black history, still the subject of fierce political and cultural battles, is more complex and knotted and subject to cynical revisionism than most.

Left: Nyasha Madamombe, “Manbokadze.” Photo courtesy Multnomah Arts Center. Right: Madamombe‘s “Ndaibhuruka Kuna Mai Vangu.” Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

It’s not surprising, then, that the art included in Black History IS History reflects those truths. Some of it, such as J’reyesha Brannon’s bold and jagged Black Liberation, is assertively political. Some, such as Nyasha Madamombe’s majestically beautiful ceramic bust Ndaibhuruka Kuna Mai Vangu, embraces the culture’s African heritage, which lives on in such things as a love for patterns and shapes and a richness of color. Some, such as LaVerne Lewis’s gorgeous, vibrant art quilt Jambalaya, is celebratory: Here. This is how we feel, look, think, believe. This is us.

Left: Painting by MOsley WOtta. Photo courtesy Multnomah Arts Center. Right: Nia Musiba, “The Very Last Time We Touched,” cut paper collage, 2023. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

Black History IS History — curated by the multiple-form Portland artist Daren Todd and artist/writer/curator Steph Littlebird, who is also the author of the ArtsWatch series Indigenous History & Resilience — features the work of more than a dozen Black artists in the Northwest. The exhibit is built largely around the vivid and remarkable Afrocentric sculptural and other works of Nyasha Madamombe, smartly surrounded by the work of other artists including Alice Price, J’reyesha Brannon, LaVerne Lewis, Mahma Oya Jaguar, Melanin Mvskoke, Melissa Salazar, Monie Love, MOsley WOtta, Nia Musiba, Paola De La Cruz, Raphael El Khalif, and Tammy Jo Wilson.

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Paola De La Cruz, “You Felt So Real” series, clay, moss, fabric, 2023. The pieces suggest an agrarian past, and perhaps an agrarian future. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

Together, the exhibition’s artists present an illuminating and visually vibrant snapshot of a fertile category of Northwest artmaking seen all too rarely in the region’s galleries. The show also provides some excellent context for Black Artists of Oregon, the large exhibition that will follow close on its heels at the Portland Art Museum. The museum show opens Sept. 9 (Black History IS History closes Sept. 2) and continues through March 17, 2024.

Meanwhile, Lessons of the Hour — Frederick Douglass, Isaac Julien’s 10-screen film immersion into the life and impact of the great 19th century Black writer and abolitionist, opens Aug. 9 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, and continues through Dec. 10.

Left: Nyasha Madamombe, “Past, Present, Future,” 2023. (If you’re in the gallery, the painting includes a little augmented-reality motion via QR code.) Oregon ArtsWatch photo. Right: Mahma Oya Jaguar painting. Photo courtesy Multnomah Arts Center.

There is great variety among the artworks in Black History IS History, and some common elements. One is the embrace of color in all of its glory: a pure love for the joy of brilliant hues. This is life, the paintings and ceramics seem to shout. There is the pleasure taken in the human form, ranging from Madamombe’s ennobling sculptures to the central Oregon musician and painter MOsley WOtta’s garishly caricatured and cheekily comical humanoid figures. There is the use of language as an integral part of artwork, from the bold proclamations in J’reyesha Brannon’s folding-box assemblage Black Liberation and Nia Musiba’s The Very Last Time We Touched to WOtta’s more sly and almost hidden insertions of capriciously spelled phrases such as “Choosing the Correkt Momemnt to Fight” — almost like afterthoughts, except on second look they don’t seem “after” at all.

A rich abundance of ingredients: Detail of LaVerne Lewis’s “Jambalaya” quilt. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

And these works embrace a devotion to craftsmanship; a commitment to creating an object of beauty and getting it right — a value perhaps most evident in LaVerne Lewis’s joyous quilt Jambalaya, a work that utterly obliterates the all too often arbitrary distinction between “art” and “craft.” Here, they are inseparable: one and the same.

In the end, Black History IS History elegantly underlines a simple and profound truth: The past shapes the present, and yet it’s still the past. It does no one any good to deny what’s happened. It does everyone good to simply face, and accept, the facts — and even revel in the sometimes startling beauty that’s emerged from them.

A peek through the window into the gallery: faces, forms (the long wooden piece in the background is Nyasha Madamombe’s “Ndezvezinza”), and a kalimba, or thumb piano, which has roots in the traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

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“Black History IS History”

  • Where: Multnomah Arts Center, 7688 S.W. Capitol Highway, Portland
  • Through: Sept. 2
  • Hours: 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, closed Sundays
  • Admission: Free

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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One Response

  1. Bob.
    Your perceptions of black and art are articulated with compassion. I always appreciated your coverage of art presented in the trailblazing venues at the IFCC back in the ‘80s.

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