Featured photo: “Adé – Crown of Oshun and Oya” by Destinie Adelakun
They come in three, beautiful embodiments of grace, endless pools of inspiration for songs, dance and poetry. They are the Muses.
On a bare wall inside the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, photographer Devin Newkirk’s interpretation of the Greek goddesses hangs next to images of shifting dancers and a powerful couple in black and brown. Two women crouch together, their backs to each other, their bodies forming a triangular fortress. One wears large hoops that kiss her leopard-print covered shoulders, her hair a soft afro. The other acts as a counterbalance, her attire more muted, pared down. Below them, a final woman sits with her arms outstretched behind her, reaching towards the platform upon which the other two have positioned themselves. A champagne skirt drapes over her legs, pooling at her feet and cascading beyond the frame. They look out at the viewer, acknowledging their presence, commanding respect.
The piece is just one of many in the upcoming show at the contemporary museum called [email protected] which opens on Friday. The exhibit was guest curated by Duane Cyrus, a longtime dancer, lover of the arts and professor at UNCG. The goal for the show, Cyrus says during a tour of the exhibit on Monday, is to “address the intersectional nature of Blackness.”
The show includes 25 artists from all over the world, many of them from North Carolina and more than half of them women. As a Black performance artist who has worked in the field for decades, Cyrus says he is acutely aware of how Black bodies have been portrayed in different mediums throughout the years.
“I wanted to emphasize that Black is comprised of many voices,” Cyrus says. “These artists don’t represent the full scope; there’s no way we could do that. But what they do and why I chose them is because they do help to identify a few themes.”
The first he calls “Lens,” or ways in which artists are looking at the current moment such as the pandemic or Black Lives Matter protests and incorporating them into their work. The second is “Vision,” or works that “encapsulate a different Blackness or Blackness that could exist outside of a binary attachment to whiteness.”
On the outside entrance walls of the museum, looming murals by Charlotte artist Wolly McNair transport visitors to another realm. Here, Black female-presenting figures wield weapons and commune with birds, their faces covered in geometric paint, limbs wrapped in threads and metals. The works look like pages out of a graphic novel, the figures exhibiting traditional African features like face masks and body markings juxtaposed with futuristic, space-age backgrounds.
They look like pieces that could be part of the Afro-futurist movement, which Cyrus acknowledges, but he’s careful not to label them as such for fear or boxing them in.
“The minute we say a term, suddenly, all these parameters flood in about what it’s supposed to look like,” he says. “What’s been great about these artists is that one artist might be representing multiple themes and that’s that intersectionality, that fluidity I’m hoping for.”
Contrasting with McNair’s piece are photographs by Toronto artist Destinie Adelakun including, “Adé – Crown of Oshun and Oya.” Like with McNair’s works, Adelakun plays with historical notions of Blackness by dressing her models in elaborate, beaded headdresses and textured garments. The titles of the works draw directly from African deities.
Nearby, African artist Ibou Ndoye’s colorful abstracted portraits capture vibrant scenes of everyday activities. When engaging with Black art, Cyrus explains that having a global perspective was important to him.
“Sometimes when we think about African art, we only view it in a historical, traditional sense, at least here in America,” Cyrus explains. “And we don’t fully remember that there is a contemporary African voice.”
Walking through the gallery, he explains the two remaining themes: “Corporeal” and “Resistance Project.”
Both examine how Black bodies are projected out into the world.
“It’s about Black artists using their bodies to claim Blackness for ourselves,” he says. “There’s such a history of Black bodies being co-opted, fetishized, objectified, oversexualized. The image is not controlled by Black people…. These are not European versions of Blackness, Westernized versions of Blackness. This is, to me, how Black people look.”
As part of those themese, Cyrus chose multiple photographs that capture the nuances of Blackness in film. For him, the communication between bodies and photography, when done right, is a marriage like no other.
“There is a direct correlation between the moving body in performance… and what we see with still form like photography,” Cyrus says. “Because a great photo captures movement…. It’s about what the body can express…. I always appreciate the mise en scene; I’m very visual with my choreography so the connection with me is seeing how bodies negotiate space.”
Part of that explains the reasoning behind the artist’s “Resistance Project,” which Cyrus started in 2019 as a way to celebrate and recognize Black women in art, education and history. As part of the project, he has worked with numerous young artists, including photographer Devon Newkirk to reframe the narrative about what it means to be a Black woman today.
That’s where the image of the three women, which is also the title of the work, was born. After Newkirk shot the image, Cyrus was so taken by it that he convinced the photographer to recreate the image casting his three grandnieces as the muses. The idea, Cyrus says, was for the three girls, who live in Winston-Salem, to be able to not just visualize themselves as works of art but actually see themselves reflected as such. And that’s how he hopes viewers feel about the show, too.
“I want people to takeaway that Blackness consists of a diverse group of people,” he says. “That we have contemporary voice, that we are not just part of the past, that we are not shaped solely by the oppressions that we have experienced, that we write the narrative for our future.”
[email protected] opens at SECCA on Friday with an opening reception from 5-8 p.m. The show will run until April 17. To learn more about the show, visit secca.org. For more information on Cyrus, visit theatreofmovement.org.