The Only Lasting Truth: on Midwestern Black Abstraction at SooVAC
Posted June 30th, 2022 by Yonci Jameson
'God is Change-Take Root Among the Stars' is a survey of Black artists working abstractly in this time and place
I first arrived at Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower at 5am, sitting on a dock while the sun rose over Sturgeon Lake in Minnesota. It was June 2020, weeks into the Minneapolis uprising following the murder of George Floyd. My friends and family had banded together for a much needed Black-only retreat, hosted by some community members at a repurposed summer camp. After a full day of ruckus and activity, I absent-mindedly picked up the book in the evening, thinking that I’d read a few pages before bed.
But I never fell asleep.
Like a camper would, I pulled out my flashlight to keep reading, tucked in my sleeping bag while my friends slumbered on.
Before I realized, it was daybreak, and a gray-blue sky just barely flickered through the tree cover that surrounded my cabin. I took that as an opportunity to take it outside, wanting to associate myself with the forest around me. There was too much going on in the book for me to be contained inside. Heading with the dawn, I went to the lake dock.
The book follows the character Lauren Olamina’s journey up the state of California in post-apocalyptic America, and the formulation of her philosophy, called “Earthseed: The Book of the Living.” Banding together with those on her path, she fights to cultivate a safe and resilient community. Written in 1993, the violence, precarity, and terror of the book is horrifying and, simultaneously, a psychically accurate depiction of our current crises in 2022. Reading the book for the first time, surrounded by the still waters of Sturgeon Lake and the subtle flush of sunrise, I felt a strange peace: a calm, juxtaposed by the brutality – and reality, as observed by the Minneapolis uprising – of the book, and abstracted by the beauty of my surroundings. What was felt was Octavia’s iconic beckoning:
“All that you touch
All that you change
The Only lasting truth
God is Change”
Enter Change is God-Take Root Among the Stars: Black Abstraction in the Midwest. As Octavia Butler penned in passage 21 of Earthseed: Books of the Living, “The self must create its own reasons for being.” Change is God-Take Root Among the Stars examines the evolving practices of Black abstract art in the Midwest. “Transformations of the soul and resurrection of geographic histories unfold through many forms of media,” says curator Gregory J. Rose. “New ways of being are always an abstraction making way for new ways of seeing.”
Top: Installation view featuring work by Barber, Monica J. Brown, Marcus Rothering, Nicole Davis, & Bruce Armstrong. Bottom: Marcus Rothering, Swallowing the Stone.
Part of Rose’s curatorial vision was a desire to welcome the artists “home.” With its diversity of mediums from seventeen artists, Change is God makes familiarity out of the unknown. Quilts from artists Kehayr Brown-Ransaw (cradled by clouds and held in mama’s tears) and Naima Lowe (How To Make Your Own Pink Flag) provide cloaks of warmth, while other textiles from Alexandra Beaumont and Nicole Davis (Quarantine, Untitled [Aretha]) create tactile palimpsests. Marcus Rothering’s sculptures remind the eye of traditional woven baskets, their dense netting beaded with colorful glazings and gleaming teeth, their insides sparkling from reflected light. Lela Pierce’s Vortex Star Adoration is a wondrous contraption of sorts: hand-sculpted open-face gourds hang, cradling turmeric powder, and Nazar dials rest with shallow clay bowls and thin, angled clay pieces. Taj Matumbi brings a bright, folk-like energy to his figures in Sucker Punch Prince and Prince Uhuru.
For Erica Maria Littlejohn, research is equally as important as visual content in their artwork. Her quilts are narrative tapestries, paying homage to her matriarchal lineage. To see the quilt is to see evidence – or to see memory – of where her grandmother’s hands pulled stitches tight or let fabric out. “Quilts are so intimate. They hold so much emotion,” says Littlejohn. The soft arrases of cotton, chenille, wool, and silk threads vacillate between pastel pinks and purples, blushes of orange, and swaths of blue and lime green. At the base of the weavings rests a glass gourd, milky pink.
From Chicago, Barber subverts representation of the body by personifying stick figures with found assemblage. Ppl #9 is formed by a paintbrush, a 7UP can, a ripped tube of yellow paint, a plastic bag, and the spine and pages of a book. “I wanted to remove the disconnect between the painting and the viewer,” says Barber. This is done by omitting any semblance of human characteristics and features. Instead, representation is achieved through its construction. “What I’ve found as a theme was, ‘something out of nothing.’ Ingenuity. There’s a lot of energy in material.” In this way, Barber honors the resiliency of those descended from slaves, molding an existence out of subjugation and innovating from discarded remnants.
Top: Monica J. Brown's The Kiss and Lela Pierce’s Vortex Star Adoration. Bottom: Stephanie Lindquist, Waseca, Peat, Baoma, and to Robertsfield.
Monica J. Brown's The Kiss is a vivid visage: a topography of pools, rivulets, and snaking veins in varying blues flow, coalescing in the embrace of two emerging figures. Kinks and coils emanate from the blue-black backing, framing two faces conjoined at the mouth in compelling intimacy. Three bright orange orbs – suns, or moons, or planets – climb the canvas. “I think of Time as an abstraction, and a lot of my work seems to deal with time travel, in some ways,” says Brown. Citing inspiration from Toni Morrison’s concept of “literary archaeology,” Brown’s work is an ancestral exploration, supplementing known information of her lineage with colorful abstraction to create a living, evolving archive.
The natural world makes for a blurring of the lines between realism and abstraction. In Stephanie Lindquist's installation, four oversized petri dishes sit on the floor – Waseca, Peat, Baoma, and to Robertsfield, illuminated and enlarged images of inoculated soil samples from varying locations, including West Africa and Minnesota. The circular dishes emit a glow onto the wall, tinged by the natural hues of the various samples. “I love this feeling the viewer might have when they first come up to the work and they actually don’t recognize it all, all they recognize is texture and material,” says Lindquist. To know soil and what grows from it is, in a way, an understanding of place and belonging.
Still, we Black folk in the Midwest are no strangers to being othered. “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background…” Zora Neale Hurston once said. I am no stranger to being outnumbered by white folks in the room, even when Black art is the only art present. As a Black Minneapolitan, born-and-raised Northsider residing east of 35W and south of Lake St., and having never visited the Soo Visual Arts Center before, my journey through this gallery began with slight skepticism: Black abstract art in Uptown? What’s Black or abstract about Uptown? What I had experienced in this area of my city didn’t necessarily resonate with what I knew to be home. I was disoriented coming to these works. But in that way, I was called back to bell hooks’ writing from Art on My Mind: “Defamiliarization takes us away from the real only to bring us back to it in a new way…There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look.”
Precedented by the more recent police murders of Black people from the Midwest interior, Minneapolis is (still) in the midst of its umpteenth racial reckoning, and thus, Black folks, particularly artists, exist in an era of hypervisibility. Overshadowed by figurative works and literal depictions, Black abstract art seems to be a neglected narrative.
Change Is God testifies to its necessity.
It is a reclamation of the inherent abstraction of Blackness and Black identity. It is a subversion of the white Midwestern gaze, where few distinct “Black bodies” are present for white onlookers to project their fears and desires upon. Here in Minneapolis, we are overdue for Black art that defamiliarizes its observers, and questions: Who sees and feels seen by Black art? Who resonates, where and how? ◼︎
Installation view featuring work by Monica J. Brown, Lela Pierce, Kehayr Brown-Ransaw, and Taj Matumbi
Change is God-Take Root Among the Stars: Black Abstraction in the Midwest is on view at SooVAC through July 31. Gallery hours: Wed-Fri, 1 - 6pm; Sat & Sun, 11am - 5pm.
Video interviews with some of the artists in the show are also up on SooVAC's Youtube.
Banner image: Kehayr Brown-Ransaw, cradled by clouds and held in mama’s tears (detail). All images courtesy of SooVAC.