Black Mystery Month | Bill Gaskins

Black Mystery Month | Bill Gaskins

The Department of Art at the University of Minnesota is pleased to present Bill Gaskins: Black Mystery Month.

The highly regarded and widely admired artist will give a presentation about the exhibition on Thursday, April 4, 2024, at 12:00 pm in the InFlux Space, E110 located in the Regis Center for Art. The exhibition and event are free and open to the public.  

Black Mystery Month plays with the notion of Black History Month. The exhibition consists of thirty black-and-white photographs of photographs from press archives and the public domain with plastic letters randomly placed on each print. The photographs are blurred and the focused text, spelling out the subject’s name, appears backwards and scrambled. These visual and textual disjunctives are part of the mystery of Black Mystery Month. The puzzles created by the texts in the photographs can be quickly decoded with a mirror or the selfie mode on a cell phone camera as an inventive interactive feature. Either way, the viewer must insert themselves into the frame, into the flow of history.   

Most of the photographs render Black Americans prominent in the nation’s history, including for example the scholar Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, who proposed Negro History Week nearly a century ago, in 1926. The suite also includes an image of Viola Fauver Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist who participated in the Selma to Montgomery freedom marches in 1965 and was killed by the Ku Klux Klan.   

The exhibition, especially intended to be seen in university art galleries, poses the question “what do you know, what do we know, about American history?” Each artwork is titled Blackboard with a corresponding number, referencing the pre-digital chalk boards ubiquitous in school classrooms, and the Blackness of the subjects.   

Black Mystery Month includes a video by Gaskins titled Mystery Lessons that unpacks the tension and contention over Black History Month across racial lines through satire and substance. The artist has noted that in “the twenty-first century, the dominant idea of a person with cultural weight as a thinker, living and thriving in the domain of ideas, remains white and male in the popular imagination—an idea that travels across lines of race, class, and gender identities. This suite of photographs merging portraiture and still-life and the accompanying video are made to engage attention through their unexpected form and content. 

Black Mystery Month will playfully test cultural and historical aptitudes through selected chapters of American history that disrupt claims of a post-racial America, and guide viewers to lessons on the most durable and mysterious pandemic of the human story beyond the gallery.”    

Black Mystery Month is sponsored by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery; the Department of American Studies; the Department of History; the Department of Art's Visiting Artists and Critics Program; the Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities, College of Liberal Arts; the Givens Collection of African American Literature & Culture at the University Libraries; and the Givens Foundation for African American Literature.

About the Artist:

Bill Gaskins is a thoughtful producer of photography, video, and nonfiction writing that offer viewers and readers engaging aesthetic impact, knowledge, and meaning. The range of his creative and scholarly work merges the visual and liberal arts through his interests in the history of art, photography, cinema, and American and African American Studies. Gaskins’ essays and photographs appear in journals, magazines, anthologies, and exhibition catalogs, including Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, Society of Contemporary Craft, Artsy, Aperture, Nature, and the New Yorker Magazine. In addition, solo and group exhibitions at major venues, including the Crocker Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution, reflect his relevance as a contemporary artist. Gaskins is also known for his impactful teaching and innovative curricular vision; he was awarded the Watts Prize for Faculty Excellence by Cornell University Department of Art in 2016 and received a University Distinguished Teaching Award from the New School in 2011. He is currently a professor and founding director of the MFA Program in Photography + Media & Society at Maryland Institute College of Art.

The Katherine E. Nash Gallery included Bill Gaskins’ epic photographs Michael Baldwin, Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ, 2007 and Robert Pines, Montclair, NJ, 2007 from The Cadillac Chronicles series in the 2022 group exhibition A Picture Gallery of the Soul. In 2023 Gaskins contributed the brilliant essay From–Philadelphia to the exhibition catalog A Tender Spirit, A Vital Form: Arlene Burke-Morgan & Clarence Morgan, published by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery and distributed worldwide by the University of Minnesota Press.

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