Columbia’s Afro-Surreal Life
Within the first 30 minutes, dozens of people gathered to observe “Marvelous Freedom/Vigilance of Desire, Revisited,” an Afro-Surreal group exhibition that opened Jan. 31 in the Arcade Gallery in the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building.
The exhibit was inspired by D. Scot Miller’s 2009 manifesto “Black Is the New Black,” which describes the characteristics and ideology behind Afro-Surrealism, an artistic philosophy that addresses contemporary concerns surrounding art, race and consciousness. The San Francisco-based Miller attended the exhibit opening, which featured the work of 10 artists who expressed the concept through photography, sculpture, film and mixed media.
“Afro-Surreal is mostly from artists in a certain form of otherness who don’t see themselves in the longstanding tradition, given prime rule over all literature, visual art, music, fashion and theater since the turn the turn of the eighteenth century,” Miller said.
The exhibit was made possible by Krista Franklin, an MFA candidate in Book and Paper Arts; Devin Cain, senior film & video major; and Alexandria Eregbu, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who curated the show.
According to Miller, the history of blacks in America demands re-affirmation of black humanity, as denied by imperialist and exploitative forces.
“In this regard, black American artists are very far ahead because we have remained, will remain and will continue to be of credit, not for freedom of others but for our own personal selves,” Miller said. “Obviously every door we have opened has brought humanity closer to the marvelous.”
The featured Columbia artists and alumni include Cain, Franklin, Stephen Flemister, and Michael Tousana. SAIC is represented by Kenrick McFarlane, Hannah Rodriguez, Christina Long, Cameron Welch and Chelsea Sheppherd. Other artists include Avery R. Young and Cecil McDonald Jr.
The Arcade Gallery was set up to lend each artist space in which their work could stand separately, but within the confines of the single corridor on the building’s north wall. Cain’s films played on loop, as audiences watched his works in black and white.
Cain said Afro-Surrealists reclaim myths and stereotypes surrounding race.
“European Surrealism is empirical,” Cain said. “They have the dream based on experiential manifestations, [but] we create the dream. We create that myth. We take that and we make [our art] through that because that’s what we’ve had to do for our entire existence.”
Cain created his latest film, “Lilith,” a rendition of the Jewish myth concerning Adam’s first wife, after he learned about Afro-surrealism, which he deems a vein of black hallucination. Cain said Lilith was the first woman to reject male dominance.
“You have these patriarchal figures- Adam and God- saying, ‘No, you can’t do this,’” Cain said. “For that she was turned into a night demon.”
Cain said his film uses this transformation to frame blackness as the original sin.
Sheppherd’s piece in the exhibit, titled “I’m a N—-R, ”was inspired by a conversation she had she with her ex-boyfriend about miscegenation. Sheppherd said he directed the slur at her when she explained that her Puerto Rican heritage included African and Spanish ancestry.
“I was dealing with a sensitive word, and I want to be sincere in the work I make,” she said. The title of the piece appears on fabric depicting the legs of a coupling black man and white woman, torn from a larger work recording more of the exchange that inspired it.
Franklin said she focused her work through the manifesto’s theme of making the invisible visible by repressing “Black is Black” and stressing the random appearance of discarded weave in Chicago through her exhibited work. She said it reflects the absurdity on which surrealism feeds.
“We can open up dialogue for the larger community of artists and thinkers of color interested in these themes [and] seriously engaging what they mean and how they can be used,” Franklin said.