February in the Cultural Arts Gallery
Updated: Mar 2
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” —Muhammad Ali
Going into February, I was nervous. IUPUI has a fraught (i.e. racist) past - it's literally built over what used to be a thriving Black neighborhood on Indiana Avenue. I take anti-racism seriously, and I'm conscientious of the role of the curator in perpetuating or addressing racism.
My original exhibitor dropped out two weeks before the gallery was set to open. I had collaborated with a middle school art teacher, with the hopes of displaying student artwork done as an homage to Synthia Saint James. The goal was to honor this prolific artist, while also inviting members of the Indianapolis community to IUPUI's campus, who may otherwise not be included. But, things happen, and adjustments must be made.
For the next two weeks, I worked to come up with an exhibition. What I came up with was called "An Assemblage of Gifts: The Legacies of Black Artists in America." I researched, designed, and printed about a dozen posters on artists from Edmonia Lewis and Horace Pippin, to Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker.
The gallery opened on time, but it was, quite frankly, insufficient. Despite my hard work and best efforts, the gallery looked empty, especially when compared to "Friends of Dorothy." People noticed; the visitor feedback binder was full of disappointed and sometimes angry reviews, and I didn't blame them.
Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place and reached out to friend and artist, Dai. This is where things finally started to come together. Dai used her own artwork, as well as her connections to other Black artists, and filled the gallery with colorful, vibrant, and deeply expressive paintings. The gallery looked fantastic!
Ultimately, it was community collaboration and the voices of Black women that transformed the gallery into a space of celebration and recognition. I only wish that I'd put my own ego aside and reached out to her sooner. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to work with this phenomenal group of artists, and for the fact that they saved the gallery this month.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned here - the first one definitely being humility. The next is the value of community collaboration, and the need for institutions to have the ability to pay artists when situations like this one arise. Finally, and perhaps the most obvious, is the importance of centering and uplifting Black voices year-round, and not just during the month of February.