“The most obvious contribution to social change that literature can make is simply to inform people of something they know nothing about. There are other situations where we believe we know something but don’t really know it in a visceral way, don’t really know it emotionally, to the point where it moves us to action.” – Howard Zinn in Afterword to American Protest Literature.
HOWARD ZINN’S WORDS echoed when I was trying to take in the riches of the current exhibition at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, Red Thread : Green Earth. Here I was surrounded by narratives (words as well as visual and performative acts of storytelling) offered by a collective of six African American women, telling us about their relationship to nature, history, and mythology along ancestral pathways. Many of the stories were unfamiliar to me. At the same time, the work shown would make anyone who is the slightest bit interested in nature feel a bond to the artists who explore their own deep love for it. That combination of differences and similarities makes for a powerful experience, a sense of being invited into an unfamiliar circle and then discovering you belong there in bits and piece as well, easing your way into learning about all that you don’t know.
The women of Studio Abioto, mother Midnite and daughters Amenta, Kalimah (Dr. Wood Chopper), Intisar, Medina and Ni, offer a range of work across different media: Poetry, assemblage, sculpture, filmmaking, photography, printmaking, computer graphics, music and interactive performance are all on the menu. The different art forms do not dominate (or distract from each other) but rather enhance each other, just as the artists did in real life when I interviewed them, in warm and mutually reinforcing interactions. The art on display provides individual pieces toward the completion of a larger puzzle. Whatever the dynamics in this tightly knit family of artists might be, their work is proof positive of the old German Gestalt Psychology adage: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual voice contributes, but it is the message sung by the chorus that emerges with clarity and force.
“The Mystery Unfolds.” – Amenta Abioto, Lyrics to Plant It.
BRING TIME, when you visit this exhibition. For that matter, bring the kids, the grandparents, your Thanksgiving guests, Uncle Theo, whoever you can think of. There is much to explore and much that would hold interests for everyone across generations. The informality in the display of the work – clothespins to the rescue! – immediately invites you in, curled paper creating a 3D echo of the sculptural work in its vicinity.
Planters are scattered throughout, plant materials are used in the creation of several assemblages, plants are dominant in photographs, plant parts are used in small sculptures. The red thread, it seems, then, is nature and the artists’ relationship to it, winding its way through the gallery and in and out of the works. Dig a little bit deeper, though, and the red thread emerges as a symbol of the strength and suffering of Africans in the Diaspora: the trail of blood created by ruthless slavers, the bloodlines conferred by women who brought their children into the world, and taught them the body of knowledge of their ancestors.
Two larger-than-life matriarchal figures can be found, in the main gallery and in the upstairs lobby. Created by Midnite, they embody pretty much every possible symbolism representing the experience of slavery and the torturous path through a society that has yet to overcome structural racism. The artist was trained and worked as a lawyer and civil rights advocate in Mississippi and Tennessee before she relocated to Portland. Her art reflects both her analytic precision as an attorney and her broad knowledge of the historical backdrop. She attributes her confidence to explore ever-new avenues of artistic expression to her upbringing in a Baptist church that empowered young girls to find their own way.
The Egungun Rise From the Depth of the Sea upstairs evokes the millions of lives lost during the Middle Passage, on ships, water and land. The many photographs, historical items, beads, tools, vessels, and plant materials, are collaged into a statue that stands in front of a poem, The Egungun’s Song, which provides the frame for thoughts about freedom – or the absence thereof. A small mirror at eye level within the sculpture cleverly reflects the visitor’s own face while exploring the mysteries in front of us: We are drawn into a connection that implies a shared history, linked through the generations, part of the picture but on different sides.
The Forest Queen Descent in the Middle Passage, downstairs and again juxtaposed with text, is a marvel constructed of foraged plant materials, pottery, fabric, and written documents relating to the slave trade. Full-figured with an emphasis on voluptuous form so often ridiculed, a typical body type of Black women, she proudly lifts up new life, and the memories of lost souls emerge through translucent dried leaves of the “silver dollar” plant (Lunaria Annua), also known as Annual Honesty. The concept of money and slave trade is easily understood; some of the other symbolism – river birch as protection, adaptability, and renewal, for example – needs a bit of explanation. The European Renaissance tradition of symbolism in art, providing multitudes of clues that (only) the initiated understood, finds a perfect counterpart here, inviting us into a world of meaning that is new for many of us and begs for exploration. In some ways it alerts to the ways in which specialized knowledge was used to separate people; historically used to keep power hierarchies intact.
The upstairs Emerging Artist gallery also displays some of the work of the youngest member of the Abioto family, Medina. Her magical and mythological creatures are made with digital art-processing programs and display throughout Black features that overall are still absent in the fantasy arts world. These fairies also contain a multitude of symbols associated with nature; tulips, flame lily, wisteria and, importantly, water among them. I found them not just whimsical, maybe even enchanting for the younger kids, but suggesting a certain toughness, a brave willingness to engage the world on their own terms.
“That by sharing our love of Nature, we might call each other into a better relationship with the Earth and with each other, rather than dismissing those whose views differ from our own. That by revealing what it is we love, we honor our common ground and our common humanity.” by Carolyn Finney, Earth Island Journal, 7/2022
INTISAR ABIOTO’S PHOTOGRAPHS, hung on the walls and ethereal against the windows of the Reser Gallery, embrace portraiture and nature – preferably one situated within the other. Some of the images bring the point home by a kind of double exposure – photographing a person and then photographing a print of that portrait in the forest, a crossover in time and place. Next to the beauty and vivacity she reliably captures, both in the very young and the old, the photographer documents the relationship between these women and the environment, in the woods and on the farm. The interaction between Black people and nature in this country has been often evaluated through a white lens – one claiming that white desire and privilege of embracing, experiencing and conserving nature was not shared. Funny we should think so, given that everything was done to prevent Black citizens from the pursuit of existential interaction with the land – namely farming – or of recreational experience of nature, hiking in the great outdoors.
Historic legislation limited both movement and accessibility for African Americans, as well as American Indians, Chinese, and other non-white people in the United States. This included the California Lands Claims Act of 1851, the Black Codes (1861–65), the Dawes Act (1887), and the Curtis Act (1898). The reason to exclude non-white people from nature was a simple one: With the abolition of slavery, plantation owners and former slave holders needed a way to force the Freedmen to work during Reconstruction. Their solution, as I’ve written elsewhere,
“…make[s] it so that the former slaves had no independent access to food or others means of survival, so that they were forced to accept working conditions and substandard wages just to stay alive. Previously, slaves had been assigned small garden plots and permitted to forage and hunt on the plantation grounds, so that the owners could save feeding costs. It was theoretically possible for the 4 million freed slaves to go on living from the land, and selling surplus goods if foraging was successful. It had happened before – In the Caribbean Islands slaves from sugar plantations went to live in the hills, and the British colonialists had to import workers from Asia at great cost. So hunting and fishing or grazing livestock on private land was outlawed, and labor laws and vagrancy statutes [were] established that allowed courts “to sentence to hard labor “stubborn servants” and workers who did not accept “customary” wages.” The threat of starvation had to hang over laborers to force them into working the fields.”
These days, access to public land is theoretically no longer tied to race. Yet the remnants of historic exclusion linger, and there are horrifying statistics about how often Black hikers, campers and birdwatchers are threatened, even though their numbers are enormously underrepresented in state parks. The range includes attacks on property and physical safety, from slashing tires and tents, to actual attempts at lynching. Publications like the Sierra Club Magazine, not known for hyped-up commentary, deliver the statistical details.
Carolyn Finney’s eye-opening book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors describes the historical underpinnings of this exclusion, as well as facets of the African American experience of working with the land and regaining farming expertise. One of my favorite photographs in the exhibition is of a young girl handling collard greens at the Mudbone Grown farm in Corbett, Oregon. Thoroughly grounded, clearly in her element, the girls looks like an embodiment of a new farming generation. Mudbone Grown “is a black-owned farm enterprise that promotes inter-generational community-based farming that creates measurable and sustainable environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts … with a five-year goal to enhance food security, reduce energy use, improve community health and well-being, and stabilize our communities.” Reclaiming green space and production still has a long way to go, but vanguards exist, and Abioto’s documentation will hopefully spread the word as much as remind us that we share common ground in our love of nature.
“I’m trying to speak––to write––the truth. I’m trying to be clear. I’m not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them.” – Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower.
LIKE BUTLER’S PROTAGONIST in Parable of the Sower, Kalimah, a.k.a. Dr. Wood Chopper, desires to present the truth as clearly as possible. She also embraces several of Butler’s recurring themes, the issue of inclusion and exclusion among them. She might not be interested in being fancy or original, but, let me tell you, original she is. Somehow the artist manages to make the deadly serious witty, and the seemingly funny descend into a dark place. The short films on display in the little projection room of the Gallery at the Reser are clever and enormously empathetic when it comes to describing how all that is “different” can be labeled in either constructive or destructive ways. The way that our gaze is directed to perceive something that might be a particular talent as something that is perhaps sinister, reveals the power of labeling, and/or othering. One video is a dire yet extremely funny warning about climate change and the consequences of our greed undermining restorative action, again giving echos of Butler’s post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Kalimah has worked as a teaching artist at the Northwest Film and Video Center (PAM CUT), Boedecker Foundation, Caldera Arts and other arts spaces, centering on documentary and experimental video, story structure, and the technical aspects of making a short film. Take the time to view what is looped at the Reser. Much food for thought.
Next to the video projection, Amenta Abioto’s lyrics can be read on the wall. Here is her music video of Plant It. She is a gifted musician and a notable figure in the Portland music scene and will perform in the context of the current show later this year. Some of her sculptures, fashioned from foraged materials and some of her prints can also be found at the downstairs gallery.
“Say the people who could fly kept their power […] They kept their secret magic in the land of slavery.” – Virginia Hamilton, The People Could Fly.
Since last November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has offered an Afrofuturist Period Room named Before Yesterday We Could Fly. Afrofuturism is a transdisciplinary creative mode that centers Black imagination, excellence, and self-determination. The name of the Period Room is inspired by Virginia Hamilton’s legendary retellings of the Flying African tale, “which celebrates enslaved peoples’ imagination, creative uses of flight, and the significance of spirituality and mysticism to Black communities in the midst of great uncertainty.”
Well, the MET is late to the game. Already more than a decade ago, the Abioto sisters co-produced The People Could Fly Project, a 200,000-mile flying arts expedition exploring realities of flight and freedom within the African diasporic myth of the flying Africans. Filmed in New York; Los Angeles; Cairo, Egypt; and the African nation of Djibouti, it traveled across the U.S., to Morocco, Djibouti, Jamaica, and beyond to seek the reality of this legend in the lives and dreams of people today.
Ni Abioto returns to the issue of dreaming and creating new realities for the world with her contribution to Red Thread: Green Earth, her installation of the Altar of the Emerald Ocelot. The site is intended as a portal into imagination, asking all of us to contribute our hopes and visions, written down on provided slips of paper or sent via social media, tagged #emeraldocelot @niabioto @studioabioto.
It is an inclusionary process, stressing the communal action required to imagine and then realize a better, healthier world. It encapsulates what I took home from this exhibition in general: that there should not be an us vs. them, particularly not when it comes to cherishing and protecting our earth. Love for nature is a shared enterprise, and so is stewardship, our responsibility to the planet and each other. The evil of slavery has left ugly scars on souls, bodies, and access to nature alike, but these artists embrace all who are willing to work toward change and commit to conservancy. A powerful message of healing.
THE RESER OPENED ITS DOOR IN MARCH, 2022, in Beaverton, Oregon, one of the most diverse places in this not very diverse state. In these short months, the Art Gallery has established itself as an important player in my book, with multiple exhibitions committed to “multicultural learning experiences,” which research has shown to break down barriers between differing cultures and to encourage creative thinking. It helps to have a curator, Karen de Benedetti, who is willing to take on enormously complex exhibits and who seems to have a special radar for impressive local talent.
Importantly, the shows I have seen have not sacrificed quality for message. But the commitment to message – one of common ground and shared humanity – seems to be strong at the Reser, and for that we should be grateful. This is all the more important in times like ours when the teaching of history – ALL aspects of the history of our nation – is under assault. From book-banning to restricted curricula, there are powers that hope to erase, dismiss, or ignore the experiences of whole populations of our nation. Learning about how non-white groups live, suffer, hope and dream is of the essence if we want social change toward a more equitable world. We have a long way to go.
Red Thread: Green Earth
November 2, 2022-January 7, 2023
Art Gallery at The Reser Center for the Arts
12625 S.W. Crescent Street, Beaverton, Oregon
- Saturday, November 19 | 11:30 a.m.: All Ages Performative Storytime
- Wednesday, November 30 | 6:30 p.m.: Artist Talk & Film Screening
- Friday, December 2 | 6-9 p.m.: First Friday
- Friday, January 6 | 6-9 p.m.: Closing Reception & First Friday
- All gallery events are FREE and open to the public.
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on November 14, 2022.