Diggs Gallery exhibit asks simple but provocative question
In Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man,” the narrator speaks of being “a man of substance, of flesh and bone,” but navigating a world in which people don’t see him.
The artists in the latest exhibition at Winston-Salem State University’s Diggs Gallery are trying to get people to see “I’m a person.”
“That’s all they ask, is that, ‘I be a treated as a human being,’” Diggs director Endia Beal said. “This exhibition is focusing on what it’s like to be a black man. It’s also focused on what does it mean to be a human being, a brother, a son, a lover of someone, how do you look at an individual and feel empathy and understanding toward a person.”
The exhibition, titled “Do You See Me?,” touches on issues of black identity and the stereotypes people of color deal with. The title is inspired by Ellison’s book.
The show, which runs until March 1, features works from nine artists, including High Point native Chris Watts.
Beal, a Winston-Salem native and acclaimed photographer, took over as director of the gallery two years ago, and said she’s looking to bring in works that speak to issues of concern for students at the historically black university.
“I was interested in contemporary artists that were creating works that have an urgency to them,” she said. “These artists are really talking about things happening in the community right now.”
The largest work in the exhibition is a mixed media sculpture by St. Louis artist Aaron Fowler. Described as “part monument, part shrine,” the work features a portrait of Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, who was killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in 2014.
A grand jury later declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson.
The 18-year-old Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot, appears in a heart below the picture of his mother.
The eulogy McSpadden delivered makes up the background of the portrait and mirrors make up her eyes.
“It’s sort of an altarpiece,” Beal said. “And really, the piece is talking about seeing the pain through her eyes. You look in the eyes, and you can see yourself in her. He (Fowler) has removed the police, removed all these things, and really is just talking about the pain of a mother losing her child. He’s focusing on the idea of loss and tragedy, and the idea that Mike Brown is a human being and he had a mother.”
Nearby, is a series of photographs by Davion Alston depicting among other things, a package of cigarillos, which Brown was accused of stealing prior to getting shot. Another picture shows some Skittles, which 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was carrying on the night he was shot by George Zimmerman in 2012.
Like Brown, Martin was unarmed when he was killed. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, but claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, and was acquitted by a jury.
“Many of the students who come in here don’t necessarily need to read the wall text to understand the work,” Beal said. “They look at the Skittles and they know that’s Trayvon Martin. They don’t need the historical background. They’re very aware of the contemporary issues men of color are dealing with every day.”
Other pieces in the exhibit deal with stereotypes, among them a video installation by Terence Nance, in which he Googles terms like “black boy 1.”
“And it might bring up a little black boy cussing,” Beal said. “Or it might bring up a 16-year-old black boy killed. And you find that certain prejudices and stereotypes are reinforced even in a Google search. And you have to ask yourself why is that.”
Another work touches on the nature of African-American celebrity. Watts’ “Memento” series is made up of church fans with sketches of luminaries like Wesley Snipes, Erykah Badu and Laurence Fishburne on them.
“Historically with a church fan, you usually have some kind of religious figure on them,” Beal said. “And this creates a certain ambiguity. You wonder if he’s looking at these people as deities. I think he’s talking about the spiritual nature of celebrities, and especially how celebrities of color can be lifted up in some ways to be spiritual icons.”
Beal said most of the artists in the exhibition are simply asking people to “step back.”
“And remove yourself from the prejudices that men of color are experiencing,” she said. “If you remove yourself from that and see love, family, pride and pain, you feel the relationship a mother has with her son, the father figure aspects in a black man’s life. These artists are talking about human experiences, the connection we have with each other.”
Wanna go?“Do You See Me?” runs through March 1 at the Diggs Gallery, on the campus of Winston-Salem State University, 601 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Winston-Salem. There is no admission charge for the gallery. For more information call (336) 750-2458 or visit www.wssu.edu/casbe/diggs-gallery/.