Museum features contemporary black artists throughout February

Fish dangle amidst shadows and dark foliage in three* Joseph Norman lithographs which were on display during the first week of February at the museum. It is an odd image, put into context by the title, Strange Fruit; a grim homage to the Billie Holiday song lamenting the lynchings of African Americans during the 1930s. Throughout the month, the museum will be featuring the works of three contemporary African American artists in celebration of Black History Month. Alongside Joseph Norman, works by Kara Walker and David C. Driskell will also be put on display. Francisca Moraga, the Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellow in Museum Practice, came up with the idea for the project.

“When I arrived at Colby in mid-October I was excited at the opportunity to “represent” the underrepresented groups on campus at the Museum. Then Ferguson happened, Michael Brown died and Darren Wilson was not indicted. I was angry and upset and I thought, ‘what could I possibly do in little Waterville?’ The idea of a spotlight had been thrown around in some staff meetings and it kind of just clicked.” Moraga, a recent graduate from Williams College, saw Black History month as the perfect opportunity to introduce more racial diversity into the museum, something with which museums have historically struggled. “I think in the United States, museums can be seen as predominantly ‘white’ spaces, and it’s true to some extent; as with art history, most of the art the museums have on view or acquire has been created by white, male artists. So what is there for us? Where are we represented in the museum?”

Moraga started out the project by creating a list of suitable works in the permanent collection, then worked with Dean of Students and Director of the Pugh Center Dr. Bradley of and Tionna Haynes of SOHBU to finalize the selection for the Artist Spotlight Wall.

Moraga also collaborated with the Pugh Center, SOHBU and the African-American studies department to put on Open Mic Night in honor of the works. Students shared poetry and prose inspired by Joseph Norman’s Strange Fruit, alongside other creative works discussing racial identity and discrimination. Moraga said she was pleased with the evening: “It was great to see students who I hadn’t seen passing through the Museum before in attendance. The energy that night was amazing.”

This week, Kara Walker’s no world is up on view. The striking etching features two dark hands reaching out of the ocean clutching a ship. Walker’s work harks back to the images in J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship, which features the hands of drowned slaves reaching out among the waves. Walker gained notoriety over the past Summer for her project “A Subtlety” in which she constructed a giant sugar sphinx in an old Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York.

The month will end with the display of African Women, Windows by David C. Driskell, a striking woodcut of varied layers of deep, rich color. Driskell is an artist, scholar and curator and is known as a prominent authority on African American Art. 

This is only the first of several potential Artist Spotlight Walls to feature diverse artists. Moraga is currently preparing a similar endeavor for Hispanic Heritage Month, which will be on display from mid-October through mid-November.

*Correction: The print edition of this article originally stated that there were only two lithograph prints on display, there were actually three.

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