Exhibition brings contemporary Black American art to a wider audience

If you’re Black and an artist, it may be hard to find support. Right now, two different groups are joining to help Black artists reach a larger audience. The Dayton Art Institute and the African American Visual Artists Guild have never collaborated. The exhibit is called Black Heritage through Visual Rhythms.

In the mid 1980’s, James Pate, A young Black artist in Cincinnati just out of high school, finished a portrait. “I did techno-cubism drawings,” Pate recalls, “sort of an illustration where I used multiple images, and I just composed one of Jesse Jackson.”

Dayton artist Bing Davis saw it and had an idea. Jesse Jackson was going to speak at Central State University in Wilberforce. Davis told Pate to come, and he would display the portrait in the lobby. Pate says he had just enough money for the gas. Pate tells the story. “And after Jesse Jackson’s speech, so he leaves out the back entrance some kind of way, and Bing says, ‘Get the drawing! Get the Drawing!’” (laughs) We all went down through this hallway and out the back. Bing was just selling! You know, just talking it up. He [Jesse Jackson] reached in his pocket and pulled out an envelope, gave me a hundred-dollar bill and then hugged me. And that was my way back home.”

Black visual artists in Dayton always faced limited opportunities to show their work. So in the early 90’s, they created the Guild to support each other. They organized a national juried exhibit at Wilberforce. Over the years, they had six shows there. Then the guild board asked, “Why not the Dayton Art Institute?”

“This fine facility sitting on the hill has always been in front of us,” says Cato Mayberry, the current president of the African American Visual Artists Guild. “The Dayton Art Institute which happens to be housed right in the center of a predominantly African American community also speaks volumes.”

And so this show at the Dayton Art Institute is open, and it pulses with vibrant colors and textures. There are forty national artists, fifteen of which come from the Miami Valley.
One of those artists is Gregory Changa Freeman, a writer and photographer. In the summer of 2020, he was taking pictures of a Black Lives Matter protest when he saw a Black postal worker coming up the street. In that moment, Freeman thought of Juneteenth. That’s the day the U.S. government delivered the message of emancipation to enslaved African Americans in Texas. It was two years after Lincoln’s proclamation.

Black Lives Matter Sign and Postal Man

Gregory Changa Freeman

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In 2020 Gregory Changa Freeman was inspired by a Black postal worker coming up the street during a BLM protest.

Changa Freeman vividly remembers the postal worker. “He was working and delivering the mail and kind of got wrapped up in the protest,” Freeman said. “We make progress on race,” Freeman reflects, “We seem to step backward at times, and as you see in the image, he’s looking back. And this is just a reflection of where we’ve come, where we are, and where we hope to be.”

James Pate, who did the Jesse Jackson portrait, won best in show for his charcoal illustration, “Ayo’s Chair.” A young Black boy sits on a carved wooden chair twice his size. He’s reading a book in an art studio. Art students and their teachers are sculpting a bust of Breonna Taylor, another of George Floyd. On an easel in the background, we can just make out the image of Emmett Till.

On the legs of the chair are male figures—African, Asian, Native American. The image recalls African stools that honor the ancestors, says Pate. “And so the legs of the chair just sort of represent the village and the support of this child. You know, this child, Ayo, pretty much represents any child in the world. You know, Ayo’s chair is a piece about expectation and hope.”

There is a figure on the fourth chair leg. It’s a white policeman. Pate says this is a call to the police. “You can’t see that Ayo is your kid too? Come on, like come on, you got to, you got to. How come you can’t see it as the human race?”

Andrew Scott, a sculptor and digital artist, was one of the jurors. He believes that Black artists should draw on their identity and creative traditions to be world citizens. “There’s a million ways to be an African American artist and you’re just as much an African American if you choose one path as another because you’re crazy to be an artist in the first place.”

Black Heritage through Visual Rhythms will be at the Dayton Art Institute until May 22nd.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

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