By Vanessa Morton
In a three-shot photo sequence, an abstract pattern of tattoo-covered arms stretch across the frames that hang on one of the gray and red walls of The Arcade in the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building. Patrons gather closely to study the frames that resemble a contemporary version of the Sistine Chapel painting of “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo. This was one of the many pieces displayed in the new exhibition at the gallery.
“Fear into Fire: Reclaiming Black Male Identity,” which opened on Jan. 24, is part of Columbia’s African Heritage Celebration. Photography and film-based, the exhibit showcases work from different artists such as recent Columbia graduates Shasta Bady and Jabari Zuberi.
“The exhibit explores the black male body and the special connection shared through the narrative of tattoos,” said Nicole Harrison, the exhibition’s curator.
Harrison, a Columbia alumna, was pursuing her master’s degree at New York University when she took part in a black body image class that focused on looking deeper into photography and the black experience. The intent was to create narratives that better explained what goes on in an image.
Harrison never imagined a remark she made to a friend during a discussion about hip-hop artist Lil’ Wayne would find its way into her thesis.
“I made a very bold remark. I was like, ‘If people just paid attention to Lil’ Wayne’s body art, his tattoos would tell a deeper story than his music does,’” Harrison said.
She explained how her peers became interested in her theory, which motivated further exploration.
“Fear into Fire” reflected part of a book she read at the time of her research, “The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture,” by Bakari Kitwana, ultimately inspired the exhibit.
“Fear” describes the challenges black men and women face, and fire (in a hip-hop context) means something hot, fresh and dangerous, Harrison said.
The exhibit is broken into four sections based on topics of identity, representation and personal narrative.
The first two themes focus on black male representation through the art of tattoos, whether it’s the literal message—“RIP”– or the abstract tattoo art—“Pain is a Sickness”—which connect the body and the tattoo. The works are featured in two of the exhibit’s sections including artists Zuberi and Akintola Hanif. The artists tackled black male representation through a series of photos that reveal young black men showing off their tattoos.
“It’s all about creating a representation of yourself,” Zuberi said. “The tattoos symbolize power and represent a specific moment and memory for each individual.”
The idea of bringing black masculinity in a more positive and straightforward light is portrayed through the last two themes of the exhibit.
The themes focus on the actual physique of the black male body. The works featured in the last two sections include photos by Bady and Jamel Shabazz.
“The work is about the intimacy of the body and looking at how beautiful the black male body is,” Harrison said. “It presents that sensitive side that’s still masculine but it’s still like, ‘I can be sensitive too and not be seen as weak, not be seen as lesser than.’”
The exhibition reveals an urgency to promote awareness of society’s misconstrued notion of African-American men in mainstream media.
She believes black men “resist their oppression by taking control of their bodies that have been policed by systems of institutional racism.”
Harrison said by looking back in history, starting from slavery, there are many situations where black men have no control of their body. She explained that through time, up until present day, police identify people based on body art and general appearance, placing labels on them.
“In the media it’s sort of hard to represent yourself in ways that you see fit,” she said. “There are a lot of inscriptions placed on the black image, so when we think about taking control of our bodies, it’s important we represent ourselves the way we want to be seen and not through the eyes of others.”
Zuberi said it isn’t so much reclaiming or losing male masculinity but rediscovering it.
“I don’t think you can lose your masculinity,” Zuberi said. “I think this show gives a chance for artists to display black masculinity in a more positive, straightforward and informative light.”
While the exhibit explores the idea of appreciating the black male body, the artists and curator believe the collection exudes a universal message.
“It’s important to understand things aren’t always what they seem, and people should really dig deeper,” Bady said.