In a new exhibition installed on the walkway between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel, 21 artists and 10 writers interrogate the question: What do we learn when Black life is in focus? The exhibit, installed on the University’s Pittsburgh campus from Sept. 9 through Sept. 23 before rotating to Pitt’s other regional campuses, is one of a four-part Black Lives in Focus Initiative.
At the exhibit’s launch on Sept. 9, Professor Bria Walker and Sylvia Rhor Samaniego, director of the University Art Gallery, co-leads of the selection committee, spoke on the goals of the Black Lives in Focus exhibit.
“This initiative is one way for Pitt to bolster diversity. Everyone who has had to come in contact with this initiative — just the sheer nature of it — has had to reflect on their own biases, what they know about the Black experience,” Walker said.
For Rohr Samaniego, the exhibit necessarily heightens the visibility of people of color in Pitt’s public space.
“I believe wholeheartedly that art is an essential part of the academic experience. It is not a hobby; it is not a side job. It is what defines us, and it is what we need to show to our students not just as they move, from classroom to classroom, but in the in-between spaces on the lawn, on the hallways and on the walls,” she said.
The curated images and text reproduced on 8 by 5 foot mesh canvases form a corridor in which viewers are enveloped in the exultation, struggle, defiance and love inherent in the Black American experience. The mesh allows light to shine through the panels giving a sense of illumination.
Student artist and junior writing major Dhael Monfiston grappled with the emotional nuance of cultivating joy in the face of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Her photograph, “Black Joy,” (featured at the top of this article) is of her little sister in a flower field. She said, “it's hard to see young children so bothered by something like that. And so I think it's really important to make sure that they are still able to find happiness through other things.”
The featured text panels are not secondary to the art, but rather enhance the experience. The words are condensed poetics, usually a sentence or two long, inviting the viewer to pause and reflect before moving on to another art panel.
In remarks delivered at the show’s opening, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher noted, “James Baldwin once said that the job of an artist is to take the disorder that is life, and to create order, which is art. I can't think of a time when we've needed art more. And I'm proud of the role the University of Pittsburgh has played as a host of this exhibition, as an engaged community partner, as a resource for inspiration and expertise and even the logistics."
“It’s really important that [the art show] is public,” said Jasmine Green, a selection committee member and contributing artist. “There is the feeling of not shying away from talking about Black people, that we all deserve to feel safe, that we deserve to look forward to a future where things are better.”
For Green, art breaks down barriers and stereotypes. “It's like if we allow people to speak in their own words about their own experiences and if we allow people to express themselves through their own artwork, it's hard to maintain a distance from them,” she said.
Black Lives in Focus is presented with the University of Pittsburgh’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Center for Creativity, and the Department of Theatre Arts and the University Art Gallery of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.
— Nichole Faina