by Ebony Bailey, Shumate Council intern
Over the past seven months, the Wexner has joined Columbus in showcasing art by artists of African descent. This programming has been important to me as a young, Black woman. For me, it’s because these shows and exhibitions provide SPACE.
You see, it’s like this. I sometimes use space to think about what it means to live as a Black person in America. It means occasionally realizing that you are the only Black person in the room, a feeling akin to claustrophobia because it is a reminder of the systems and structures you live in. It means an intrusion on personal space, a lack of distance. When Solange sings “Don’t Touch My Hair,” I remember how classmates would touch my hair; my soft curls (a work of art after hours of mom’s love and care) would be dented under the weight of a classmate’s hand.
So, I turned inward—only to find a galaxy of internalized racism, a sunken place. So, I reached out. But, being Black means existing out of reach of others; when you encounter someone, they may not truly see you. Instead, their eyes are tinted with society’s stereotypes. So, they lean forward and shake hands with “not you.” A moment later, a microaggression occurs. You want to leave the room. Yes, in that moment, you want to be on the ISS. In fact, you’d rather be in a void, a million light years away…
Yet, being Black is also what’s not said—an experience that you can’t capture in the gap between everyday life and a blogpost.
Instead, in a blogpost, I can explain how the Wex offered SPACE for contemporary artists of African descent and at the same time, offered that space to me.
There was space to theorize. From September to December, Mickalene Thomas exhibited “I Can’t See You Without Me.” Her tableaux and portraits of Black women filled the galleries; her paintings were large-scale theories of intersectionality, gender, race, and “the gaze.” And, her muses’ gazes invited viewers to theorize with them. Gallery talks from Dr. Simone Drake and Professor Tosha Stimage guided us through these philosophies. Drake placed Thomas’s work in conversation with Harlem Renaissance artists and a funk legacy; Stimage showed us how Thomas’s work is a heterotopia, a place that recognizes struggle while also “strategizing” toward a goal.
At the Wex, there was also space to gather Wex employees and put theory into action. In August and September, Dr. Melissa Crum used the concept of storytelling to help Wex staff revisit Thomas’s work. She explained how black stories were (and are) excluded in Western art, and she prompted Wex staff to reflect on race, diversity, and inclusion. These conversations were important; they allowed staff members to share their stories and contemplate how their own subject positions shape their experiences.
In September and October, the Wexner hosted several panels and talks. Charles Gaines discussed his Manifestos series, where he re-envisioned Malcolm X’s final 1965 speech as a musical piece. Wil Haygood, journalist and author of The Butler, and his fellow panelists discussed the intersection between race and Columbus’s East High School 1968-69 monumental basketball and baseball seasons. Artist Carlyle Brown used comedy, discussion, and spoken word to dissect the roots of race and racism in the entertainment industry while award-winning filmmaker Yance Ford taught audience members about the importance of authentic storytelling. The Renegade Performance Group and choreographer André M. Zachery injected movement into space with Untamed Space, synthesizing African American history, identity, and Afro-futurism to explore the resonances and temporality of maroon colonies. Along with investigating the past and future, present and future artists experimented with different mediums at the Wexner. Visitors of all ages participated in a Super Sunday art studio hosted by Cinnamon Suites Collective, a space founded by local artists Agape and Freedom.
After October, the Wex also fostered educational spaces. High school students of the Wex’s Pages program, in addition to experiencing Mickalene Thomas’s exhibition, viewed RaMell Ross’s documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s performance art piece, Séancers. In Q&A sessions, students discussed how each show encouraged introspection and a renewed look at one’s own identity. Their comments, responses each artist actively sought out, highlighted what space can provide: a memorable, educational experience.
Shows at the Wex also extended across space and time, stretching from the suffocating space on slave ships to the surveilled and restricted borders of Jim Crow segregation. Mark Lomax and his fellow musicians performed music from 400: An Afrikan Epic, a 12-alblum cycle that represents the Alkebulan (precolonial Africa), the Ma’afa (1619 to 2019), and the realm of Afrofuturism. Lomax’s drums, syncopated speculation in explosive bursts and meditative hums, filled the Lincoln Theater.
After the performance, the entire crowd listened to Lomax’s encore, wrapped in a moment of reflection. This moment was precious, personal space because it expanded into a collective gathering. The Lincoln Theater became a place to let the rhythm hit you, all of you, and you all.
Most recently, in February, DJ Krate Digga also struck a chord with his audience. In “Let the Rhythm Hit’em,” he walked the crowd through a life of rhythm. DJ Krate Digga, DJ “Bombeardo” Bombay, poet Scott Woods, percussionist Kevin Seals, MC Kaleem Musa, and dancer-choreographers Brianna Rhodes and Mason Chapello moved from African dance to stepping. “Raise your hands!” The audience raised their hands while, at their feet, they felt the low hum of the turn-table’s vibrations. The sound hit the walls, pulsating through the baseboards, leaving an energizing trace up the gallery ramp, stairs, and out the door. The rhythm ventured out and onward; it continued because the audience wanted it to go on…
And, I hoped it would go on and on. More than that. I wanted to it to be iterative, to be habitual, to describe the past, present, and future. I wanted to use multiple prepositions—“on,” “in,” and “at”—to name where I could find space, breathing room to stretch, feel, reach, heal: on the Wex calendar, in the Performance theater, and at the Wex.
“At the Wex,” I’d say when my friends asked me about a recent event. It was a casual phrase. But, in that moment, it was important because it pointed to a physical place; there, I could see artists who would help me turn inward. Who would help me return to the ground, see myself without a glare, and reach out. Instead of borders, I’d feel a keen sense of possibilities.
So, these past months, I have valued space. Because it formed a healing and generative circumference. A cycle, a space with enough room to turn back to its beginning. A never-ending loop. And, that is why it was important for me as a Black woman to experience art by artists from the African diaspora not only in the month of February, but 365 days a year.
photo credits: Katie Spengler Gentry
Mark Lomax photo credit: Dionne Custer Edwards