Tags for: New Histories, New Futures
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New Histories, New Futures

Three contemporary Black artists work with history, on view this June at Transformer Station
Nadiah Rivera Fellah, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art
April 1, 2021
Black Family

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. Image © Antwoine Washington

A new exhibition centers on three contemporary artists—two of them based in Ohio—whose engagement with time and historical revisionism is rooted in the past (Johnny Coleman), present (Antwoine Washington), and future (Kambui Olujimi).

Based in Oberlin, Johnny Coleman (born 1958) revitalizes the marginalized history of one family’s journey on the Underground Railroad. His deep archival research on Lee Howard Dobbins, a four-year-old enslaved child whose journey northward ended in illness and who was laid to rest in Oberlin in 1853, is the source of an ongoing series of large-scale installations. This exhibition features a new iteration of the series: Constellations as Yet Unnamed, an immersive multichannel sound installation that includes sculpture and a projection.

Eight of the channels contain the individual voices of contemporary Black women living in Oberlin, speaking across time and space to the eight women who attempted to shepherd Dobbins to the town.  The artist has not scripted these narratives, but rather asked the participants the following: if given the opportunity to speak directly to these courageous, resolute, and loving women, what would you say to them? The work, Coleman says, is not about reinscribing past trauma. Rather, it is composed as an “intentional gesture of reflection, gratitude, love, and respect.”

Antwoine Washington (born 1980) paints portraits of his own young family to counteract the stereotype of the absent Black father while paying homage to artists of the Harlem Renaissance. The style of artists that he draws from, like William H. Johnson, inspired Washington to recall a period in history when art and social justice movements were closely entwined. When the Cleveland-based artist became a father, he recalls, “I began to notice that the Black family has systematically been under siege by mainstream society and the media. I use my art to say ‘No—the media isn’t correct,’ and push back against racist narratives.”

The North Star series of Kambui Olujimi (born 1976) features paintings, drawings, and video of weightless, floating Black bodies “freed from the gravity of oppression,” imagining a future in which a politics of resistance can result in true bodily freedom. These works are done in the style of Surrealism or Afrofuturism. Based in Queens, New York, the artist references the topic of Black joy 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, New Futures includes several large paintings from this series, many of which have not been shown before. Like Coleman’s, Olujimi’s work will also be an immersive, experiential installation that gives tangible form to a futuristic, intergalactic dreamscape rooted in past and present iterations of social justice movements while showing the power that artists’ imaginations hold for the future of the world. As 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.”  

3 artists
Three Artists (from left) Johnny Coleman, Antwoine Washington, and Kambui Olujimi

Cleveland Art, Spring 2021