Exhibition features work by contemporary Black artists who engage both historical events and current discourse

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Exhibition features work by contemporary Black artists who engage both historical events and current discourse
Land’s End (detail), 2020. Kambui Olujimi (American, b. 1976). Ink and graphite on paper; 79 x 79 in. Collection of the artist. Image © the artist.

CLEVELAND, OH.- New Histories, New Futures centers on three contemporary Black artists’ engagement with time and historical revisionism. Johnny Coleman (b. 1958, based in Oberlin, OH) uses sculpture, sound and projection in a large-scale immersive installation that revitalizes the marginalized history of one group’s journey north on the Underground Railroad. Antwoine Washington (b. 1980, based in Cleveland, OH) paints portraits of his own young family to counteract the stereotype of the absent Black father in a style that pays homage to artists of the Harlem Renaissance. The North Star project by Kambui Olujimi (b. 1976, based in Queens, NY) features eight never-before-seen paintings of weightless, floating Black bodies “freed from the gravity of oppression.” New Histories, New Futures is on view at Transformer Station, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s sister contemporary art museum, through September 12, 2021.

“The artists in New Histories, New Futures reinterpret historical events from standpoints rooted in the past, present and future,” said William M. Griswold, director of the CMA. “The paintings and mixed-media installation create a mesmerizing experience, transporting visitors to the past, to familial domestic spaces, and to futuristic dreamscapes. The topics are relevant and address issues at the forefront of today’s conversations.”

In the latest iteration of Coleman’s work, Constellations As Yet Unnamed, the artist traces the story of one group’s journey on the Underground Railroad. Coleman partially recovers the identities of eight formerly enslaved women and girls and an adopted child who escaped from the Dobbins farm in Mason County, Kentucky, in 1853, and who stopped in Oberlin on their journey. As visitors move through the installation, a recording of voices of eight Black women living in Oberlin can be heard, speaking across time and space to the eight formerly enslaved women.

The ambient sounds, smells and sights in the installation recall the landscape the group passed through on their journey across the Ohio River, traveling primarily at night. The artist describes their stories as “lost to history,” and says, “My extended work has been an ongoing effort to retrieve the history surrounding the entire group of nine individuals who stole themselves away on that occasion back in 1853.”

Washington’s portraits counteract the stereotype of the absent Black father. Works like Black Family: The Myth of the Missing Black Father and Black Family: The Love are painted in a style that pays homage to artists of the Harlem Renaissance. The style of artists like William H. Johnson inspired him to recall a period in history when art and social justice movements were closely entwined. Other works like Black Family: The Protector and Black Family: The Provider are painted in a realist style, in pursuit of humanizing his subjects. Washington says, “[When I became a father], I began to notice that the Black family has systematically been under siege by mainstream society and the media, and I use my art to say no—the media isn’t correct—and push back against racist narratives.”

Olujimi’s North Star project imagines an existence in which a politics of resistance can result in true bodily freedom. The figures in his paintings have variegated skin tones and ambiguous genders, highlighting their occupation of a transitional space and the perception of them as otherworldly beings. Olujimi explores the interplay of opacity, legibility and visibility as “the truest articulation of self, a mother tongue and a strategy for survival.” He says, “This is not an invisibility of otherness, but the seamlessness of belonging.” Together, Olujimi’s works give tangible form to a futuristic dreamscape.

“I was drawn to each of these artists’ work because they truly do speak volumes on their own. Each is deeply invested in current and past iterations of social justice movements, which they use to bring powerful resonance to their artistic practices,” says exhibition curator Nadiah Rivera Fellah, CMA associate curator of contemporary art.

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