“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will scar me for life,” reads a framed art installation, the white cursive letters bleached onto a black background with a skull and cross bones underneath. Just below is a larger framed piece, all chalkboard black except for the whites of one eye that looks at you as you read, “Forget who your parents taught you to hate forget forget.”
“This started quite a long time ago, even before Ferguson. We were thinking of doing a series of thematic shows here and race has a profound impact on our culture, not to mention race everywhere is perceived in an interesting way,” said David Fenn, curator of the exhibition. He organized the exhibition in order to “examine what is the racial reality today? where has it come from? and where are we headed?”
Artist Kazuko Miyamoto, the owner and founder of the 29-year-old gallery, invited artist friends of hers to participate, with Fenn providing the prompt:
What is the racial reality of life today?
It does seem to be a different experience if
you’re black than white in this country.
It does seem that way.
But we are just one race – The Human Race.
We speak as if we are all different races – black,
white, red, yellow, brown. Yet, these are mostly
social constructs, artificial creations that keep
What if we were among a race of alien beings
(‘uchujin’), What if some day we find
ourselves in touch with beings from different
universes and different realities?
How would we explain ourselves?
First, we would identify as human, no?
Regardless of the color of our skin.
And the reason it is so hard for so many to do that today?
Twenty-seven artists responded to this in the form of sculpture, oils, acrylic, three-dimensional work, prints, photography, pop art, abstract and historical pieces. Fenn hopes that after viewing the exhibit, which is on display until Sept. 12, people will begin to “think about what’s important.”
To open up the audience’s mind to questions about race and its present reality in our culture, the gallery invited as panelists: Yarrow Dunham, associate professor of psychology at Yale; Cheryl Edwards, an artist who creates work informed by the black experience; Robert Lee, executive director of the Asian American Arts Centre; and David Higginbotham, an artist who has been with the gallery for a number of years.
It was during a discussion with Higginbotham that Fenn first had the idea for Raciality.
“Part of the conversation I had with David is, ‘Is race real? Is it a real thing or is it a social construct more than anything?’” explained Fenn. “Just that alone is an interesting discussion. I always thought it was one thing and [David] said completely the opposite.”
While the construct and tangibility of “race” will be laid out for discussion tonight, there’s no denying the impact race has on our society. One has only to look at the artwork in the gallery, which includes references stemming from Scarlett O’Hara’s time to today.
Tom “Ptah” Miller contributed three works that speak to his understanding of race in the U.S. One painting features the face of a young African-American, with half-sketches of others in the background – like ghosts or faces that have been forgotten.
“This was a case where a cop killed a teenager and they found a comb on him. They claimed that it looked like a gun. It just seemed ridiculous to shoot somebody on just a suspicion,” said Miller. “You see a vision underneath because this has been happening over and over again, but no one really addresses it. Obviously, there’s the saying Black Lives Matter and if it does, our judicial system should do more instead of words that don’t mean anything. People’s lives are still being lost.”
In another painting Miller juxtaposes two spellings of the n-word to show that “while it still means a lot to the older generation, in some ways this generation has kind of owned the word in certain ways. So it takes on different meanings. The old meaning doesn’t hold much.”
To Miller, art is an important starting point for a dialogue about race. Born to a Japanese mother and black father, he has experienced injustice as a person of color. He remembered coming home from a club with two friends as a young teenager. Nearby, a robbery had occurred and suddenly three cop cars pulled up. The boys, who were walking by Ray’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue, were immediately put up against the glass walls of the pizzeria. According to Miller, a cop put a gun to his friend’s head.
“We’re just young kids. You don’t really think of those things when you’re that young and then you realize that’s the reality that certain people have that others don’t,” said Miller. “You realize how the world works at a younger age. There are many stories [like that].”
“It’s incomprehensible to me that more than 40 years after all of this stuff in the ’60s with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, we can’t seem to get beyond this,” said Fenn. “There’s got to be something really powerful about this. What is the answer? I think we’ll be able to get at it.”
The Raciality opening reception is tonight from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m, with the panel discussion scheduled for 6:30 p.m. The gallery exhibit will run through Sept. 12. Gallery hours: Wednesday through Saturday, from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m.