Painting "Black Girl Absolute" with a woman sleeping in a bed
Features & Articles

Cathedral lawn art exhibit to put Black lives in focus

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus

This story first appeared in the University Times on Friday, Aug. 27, and is reprinted with permission.

The Black Lives in Focus initiative will celebrate Black lives through a variety of projects, including a traveling outdoor-multimedia art exhibition, student and community engagement and more.

Sylvia Rhor, director of the University Art Gallery and co-organizer of the initiative, said she hopes it inspires participants to reflect on the value of Black lives and the voices of people of color in the Pitt community.

The initiative, sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with support from the Center for Creativity, kicks off Sept. 9 with a private reception at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which will then move to a public event on the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Memorial Chapel lawn, where 30 panels of art and text will be displayed.

The outdoor art exhibition is one of the four inaugural projects in the initiative. Art panels along Alumni Walk will showcase work from 17 artists — from young, emerging creators to long-established Black artists — created in a variety of styles, including ceramics, video, painting, drawing, quilt making and 10 text contributions from community members.

It will be on display in Oakland for two weeks before traveling to Pitt’s regional campuses, starting with Bradford and rotating each week.

Starting Sept. 9, the Black Lives in Focus website will display the pieces used in the exhibition and additional art and various events that center on Black lives. The Carnegie Museum will use some reproductions of the art for display.

The initiative also includes The Say Her Name memorial gown event, where Karen Gilmer, lecturer and costume designer in Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts, will construct a dress with the names of women who have been killed in police shootings and other incidents. The finished dress will be on display from Sept. 13 to 23 at the University Art Gallery in the Frick Fine Arts Building.

In October, the Black Built Pitt project will launch, comprising a digital tour of Black historical events on Pitt’s campus that impacted the University’s culture and community.

The original idea for the initiative came from Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s former senior vice chancellor for engagement, who envisioned a vigil and memorial to honor the lives of slain Black people. Over time, the vision for the event evolved to focus more on Black life and art instead of trauma.

Rhor said the art will focus on Black lives on “a number of different levels.”

“It’s Black joy, Black beauty,” Rhor said. “Memorials are still a part of it. But also, there are some artworks that deal with the biases in the medical system or the judicial system. It’s a really wide range of discussions.”

Bria Walker, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and co-organizer of Black Lives in Focus, said she was inspired last summer to create Black Built Pitt after Black student organizations submitted a letter to Pitt leaders demanding that the University improve conditions for Black people on campus.

“When I read the letter, I started thinking about different ways that I could engage and I could be an agent of change,” Walker said. “And it came out … when I saw how many people just did not know about the computer room takeover (in 1969), and how it influenced Pitt, and also the Pittsburgh community. I was like, I think this is a way to amplify Black voices.”

Walker and Rhor hope the Black Lives in Focus initiative will extend beyond these events.

Walker said she hopes the event inspires Black participants and informs them of the important contributions Black people have made to the Pitt community and beyond.

“I want us as Black folk to see this, and, I think, be proud of where we’re at,” Walker said. “And I would love for someone who identifies as Black, to walk through the exhibit, to look at the websites, and have pride of who they are, have pride of what they’re looking at.”

"Black Girl Absolute," above, is one of 20 pieces of art that will be on display for Black Lives in Focus. Black Girl Absolute (Jasmine Green) is a Black visual artist and poet born and raised in Pittsburgh.

— Donovan Harrell