Originally from the Akan people of Ghana, the term Sankofa is often associated with the proverb “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi”, which means “it is not taboo to go back and seek what you have forgotten”. The concept’s Adinkra symbol is a mythical bird that flies forward with its head facing back. In the exhibition Shoulder the act at the Eckington STABLE gallery, the curators looked back and went looking for a story that not only reinforces the creation of STABLE, but also that of the black artists living and working at DC STABLE, in collaboration with the Black Artists of DC, presents an impressive collection of works of art steeped in rich African and African-American traditions. As you enter the space, the right wall features photographs of some key figures such as Harlee Little and Juliette Madison, who, from 1985, envisioned what is now STABLE as a space where black photographers could feel sorry and work. Shoulder the act is a spiritual calculation. The artists in the exhibition, spanning several generations, come together to travel through time to produce conceptual and even modern works that speak of the black experience through portraiture, video art, assemblage, and more.
Before seeing the work, the dark presence is felt and sets the tone for the exhibition. Entering the gallery, the sounds of Shaunté Doors‘Free Breakfast Program’ video work hauntingly calms the mind. The repetitive loop of phrases such as “By their very presence …” and “I was always there …” on a go-go rhythm signals that we are in black space, if the works had not already signaled it. The sound draws you to the work full of edited and manipulated images, displaying a story of the black experience. Historical archival footage is juxtaposed with more recent archival footage as black people perform traditional African dances and B-boys take a break.
While Gates’ work refers to a relatively recent history using media technology, Gina Marie Lewis confronts history with an ancestral altar. “Libations pour le voyage” is a multimedia work that uses images, cowries, bottle caps, seashells, champagne and doorknobs to provide ancestors with access and a vision of a journey. A wooden box depicting a slightly open door sits in the middle of the altar as a door to the past, with candles inside to light the way in the dark. This generous offering to the ancestors allows the artist to look to the past to spiritually create a path to the future. Lewis uses traditional technology to travel back in time to obtain the blessings of ancestors on a journey forward.
In keeping with the theme of looking at the past, Stan squirewell“Monk Hancock (Innocent Criminal Series)” combines the olden days with the present in a portrait which is a mashup of a modern black man dressed in a manipulated black winter coat with an overlay of the front of an Egyptian statue and the bodice of a Roman. Thinking back to landmark periods in history, Squirewell tells a contemporary story of the struggle for survival. The portrait connects how a contemporary black man must fight for his life, much like those who came before him in other dangerous times.
Nekisha Durrett‘s “Magnolias” says the names of women whose lives were lost too soon. In a light box, the names of three women are highlighted on magnolia leaves. These unarmed women were killed by the police, referring to the threat that unarmed black women face in their daily existence. Stories of the deaths of these women are all too common today, but by saying their names, Durrett remembers them and sums up their situation for others to know and remember their fates.
The works of art in the exhibition work together; Michael plattThe “Evening Ritual,” a painting of a naked black woman depicted eight times and composed in a circle, alludes to the “magic” that black women have known for centuries. The subject of the painting looks directly at the viewer from many angles as we observe it during a ritual. The idea reminds viewers of the spectator role that blacks have experienced as “other”. The mistrust in the subject’s response shows that it is not threatened by the viewer’s gaze.
In many ways, the works speak of the present while referring to the past. From modernist trends to conceptual trends, the exhibition represents a range of works belonging to the same exhibition space, but each one unique in its perspective. In the continuity of STABLE’s relationship with black artists for nearly four decades, this exhibition represents the importance of going back to the foundations to find clues as to the direction to take next. Each of the works of art by Shoulder the act has a distinct quality that makes visitors want to see more of the artists. The artwork in this exhibition looks at the past while representing the contemporary moment, moving us to a more conscious future.
AT STABLE until September 30. 336 Randolph Place NE. (202) 953-9559. stablearts.org.