What do you think of when you hear the words "black on black"?
Whether it's in the news or on the walls of social media, the phrase is almost always used in a negative way to describe crimes committed by African Americans against other African Americans. It's often deployed against movements like Black Lives Matter in an effort to derail the conversation away from the victims. But a new exhibit at Raleigh's Visual Art Exchange, curated by ArtsNow's Mike Williams and Saint Augustine University professor Linda Dallas, seeks to turn the misleading phrase on its head.
"We take the negative and redefine it," Williams writes in a statement accompanying Black on Black, which runs through early November. The exhibit was created and curated by people of color. Both of the curators, who are black, understand the need for spaces where people of color can tell their own stories in their own words, in an artistic climate where even shows that are about the black experience are often curated by white people. When black curators and artists represent themselves, there's no risk of exoticizing and consuming the "other."
"This is a space that is listening to what we, as artists and people of color, have to say, instead of talking over us or attempting to redefine those thoughts," Dare Coulter writes in her artist statement.
Planning for the show started in July, after police officers killed unarmed black men including Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. In the main gallery of VAE, the exhibit tackles many difficult problems facing people of color, both historically and today. When you walk in, you immediately notice the curling wires hanging from the ceiling, attached to headphones that correspond to video pieces projected along one wall. Charles Williams's "Nother / Day" follows an unnamed black man through the daily routine of standing for the pledge of allegiance. At first, he recites the words exactly, but then they start to subtly change, and eventually, the speech ends with "liberty and justice for them." It's shorter than most music videos but leaves a lasting impression, bringing to mind athletes, like Colin Kaepernick, who protest symbols of allegiance like the national anthem in a country that doesn't protect their life or liberty.
On the opposite wall, two larger-than-life photographs of black men posing in front of the American flag will stop you in your tracks. On the left, a man who looks strikingly like a younger John Crawford III, who was killed by police in a Walmart in 2014, stands in front of the flag with crossed arms and an averted gaze. The patriotic colors of the flag stand out behind the man, who appears in muted black and white. On the right, another man stares straight out at the viewer, his face half covered, like those of protesters, with a bandana bearing the Confederate flag.
The artist, Jamila R. Davenport of Durham, writes that she joined the exhibition because of an awakening that took place not only for her, but for the country over the last several years. All ten of the artists' statements are printed out and available to visitors. They're also part of a virtual exhibit on the ArtsNow website, where you can learn about a variety of associated events, from dance performances to film screenings. In this way, Dallas and Williams hope that Black on Black won't fade away when the exhibit closes, but instead will continue to spur conversations about race.
"We're catching a wave," Dallas says. "There's a movement starting in this city; the Raleigh Renaissance. When someone tells someone else's story, some things don't get communicated. It's about asking how you can take control of your own story." Black on Black shows just how necessary this is—not just for people of color, but for all of us.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Negative Image"