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Changing the Narrative

Time and Historical Revisionism in “New Histories, New Futures” Art Exhibition
Nadiah Rivera Fellah, CMA’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art
July 16, 2021
Exhibition with dark blue, marbled wall on which three artworks with curving lines are hung.

North Star series and original mural background by Kambui Olujimi

New Histories, New Futures, CMA’s newest contemporary exhibition which is now on view at Transformer Station, tackles the concepts of time and perception as told by three contemporary Black artists who engage with historical revisionism. Each artist engages with the exhibition’s premise from the perpectives of the past (Johnny Coleman), present (Antwoine Washington), and future (Kambui Olujimi).

Let’s take a walk through this exhibition and explore how each artist’s work coincides with the main themes of the show.

An artist based in Oberlin, Ohio, Johnny Coleman is a professor of studio art and Africana Studies at Oberlin College. For the last 15 years or so, Coleman has been engaged with an ongoing project that brings to light the forgotten history of one family’s journey on the Underground Railroad.

The family passed through Oberlin on the way to Canada, which is how he became aware of them. His deep archival research on Lee Howard Dobbins, a four-year-old enslaved child who traveled with the family, is the source of an ongoing series of large-scale installations. New Histories features a new iteration of the series, called Constellations As Yet Unnamed, which provides an immersive experience that awakens more than just the sense of sight through sculpture; it includes an interaction with sound, smell, and projection.

Constellations As Yet Unnamed by Johnny Coleman

Born in Kentucky to an enslaved woman who died shortly after his birth, Lee Howard Dobbins was adopted by another enslaved family on the plantation, consisting of a mother and her seven daughters. At only four years old, Lee and his family journeyed north toward freedom. When they arrived in Oberlin, however, the young boy became ill and passed away a few days later. The women continued to Canada, and it has been Coleman’s mission to trace their stories and recover their identities.

Constellations As Yet Unnamed by Johnny Coleman

For Constellations, Coleman built a central post-and-beam structure. It faces due north, and is covered in muslin, meant to evoke the hemp, which was a material produced on the plantation where the Dobbins family was enslaved. This structure is lit from within, and is surrounded by small birdhouses. Speakers inside of the birdhouses create a multi-channel sound installation. Eight of the channels are voices of contemporary Black women living in Oberlin who conjure the eight women who shepherded Lee Howard Dobbins to Oberlin. Another channel is the sound of a black bird, who represents Lee, the boy. And yet another is ambient noise that he’s gathered from a nature reserve off the Ohio River, which the Dobbins family crossed on their journey northward.

Constellations As Yet Unnamed by Johnny Coleman

Coleman says these voices and stories have been “lost to history” and his project is all about “speaking them back” into history. The installation is an ethereal, meditative space. I encourage visitors to spend time taking in the sounds and projection, but also notice the scents of lavender and chamomile flowers that add to the work. Coleman says, its not about dwelling on past Black trauma, but on creating “New Histories and Black futures.”

Antwoine Washington, an artist based in Cleveland, paints portraits of his own young family to counteract the stereotype of the absent Black father.

I was drawn to Washington’s paintings because they really do speak volumes on their own. He says he starts with the idea of the Black narrative or experience and explores the idea of how to put it out into the public.

3 of 4 artworks by Antwoine Washington in New Histories, New Futures

In our conversations he 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.”

Black Family: The Myth of the Missing Black Father, 2019. Antwoine Washington (American, b. 1980). Acrylic on canvas; 24 x 30 in. Collection of the artist. © Antwoine Washington

The style of artists that he draws from, like Harlem Renaissance artist William H. Johnson, inspired Washington to recall a period in history when art and social justice movements were closely linked. He was inspired by that overlap and the weaving together of art and life. There’s also a visual likeness to Byzantine icons of the Virgin and Child, except that the Black father usurps the Madonna. He also paints in a more realist style in pursuit of humanizing his subjects.

The third artist is Kambui Olujimi, a multi-media artist based in New York City. Olujimi’s North Star series features paintings of weightless, floating Black bodies “freed from the gravity of oppression,” imaging a future in which a politics of resistance can result in true bodily freedom.

The artist is interested in referencing the topic of Black joy or Black rhapsody as a counternarrative to the constant circulation of imagery around Black suffering and death. All the figures in the paintings have variegated skin tones, and ambiguous genders, highlighting their occupation of a liminal space and our perception of them as futuristic, otherworldly beings. New Histories includes eight large paintings from his series, on display for the first time.

North Star series by Kambui Olujimi

The title of Olujimi’s series, North Star references the Underground Railroad and offers another perspective of work across time. Like Coleman’s work, Olujimi’s is also an immersive, experiential installation that gives tangible form to a futuristic, intergalactic dreamscape that is rooted in past and present iterations of social justice movements and reveals the power that artists’ imaginations hold for the future of the world.

As the renowned historian Robin D.G. Kelley observed,

“It is precisely these alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change.”

North Star series by Kambui Olujimi

Looking for more? Watch a recording of one of our recent virtual programs, In Conversation: Johnny Coleman, Antwoine Washington, and Kambui Olujimi for a virtual walk through and commentary from each of the artists featured in this exhibition.

Video URL


Visit CMA’s New Histories, New Futures on view at Transformer Station through September 12.