The need for 'Black On Black'

Cropped version of Charles Williams' "Hauled Away / San Francisco 1968."

Exhibition features artists of color and curators of color.

Exhibition statement: History and society haven’t always been truthful or kind in the depiction of people of color. But whose depictions are they? “Black On Black” is an exhibition where curators of color asked artists of color to share their thoughts on identity in their own voice. February 27 to April 30. Contribute to the conversation using the hashtags  #BlackOnBlackATC or #BlackOnBlackVAE.

“Black On Black” was curated by Linda Dallas and Mike Williams in partnership with VAE Raleigh and appeared there in 2016. It is currently on view at American Tobacco Campus in Durham. The exhibition at ATC is in association with the Art of Cool Festival and is sponsored by ArtsNow.

The following is a commentary written by the Mike Williams. Click for more about the exhibition.

“Black On Black.” What does it mean?

Usually, we define this in terms of crime. “Black on black” is a shorthand to describe crime that’s committed by African-Americans against other African-Americans.

But in this exhibition, we turn the phrase on its head. We take the negative and redefine it. We showcase the perspectives of people of color about other people of color.

This is people of color seeing — and celebrating — other people of color. This is who we are, in our own words. This is our depiction of us.

There’s a cycle, and it ends with what we’ve seen in Charlotte recently. Sadness turns into frustration, frustration to anger, anger to wrath and then, for some, violence. Then, when we’re at our lowest, we’re on display. Think right after Hurricane Katrina. Think right after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Think Charlotte right after what happened to Keith Lamont Scott.

What we see today mirrors what would happen in the past when black men were routinely hung in the middle of the street and put on display. Now, there are just more eyeballs because media is so prevalent. But how do we get to this place, the end of this cycle? And how do we move beyond that?

Consider this: I’m African-American. I’m blessed to have had great interactions with law enforcement. I’ve also been questioned in my own neighborhood multiple times just for, you know, being in my neighborhood. I’ll be jogging or mowing my lawn. Police will start driving slowly past me, staring like I’m a zoo animal. Neighbors have done the same thing.

“Are you the homeowner?” “How long have you lived in this neighborhood?” I’ve been asked those questions on multiple occasions. In my own neighborhood. At my church building. I understand why. But it still stings, still leaves a sore spot on my heart.

Couple those experiences with seeing African-American men murdered in the street over and over and over again. In my opinion, that’s at least partly how we get to incidents like the protests in Charlotte and Ferguson. It’s not that, as U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte suggests, protestors “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” No, sir, not even close. 

I don’t in any way condone violence. Not at all. There’s no excuse for shooting at police, who are sworn to protect us. There’s no excuse for shooting at our own people or anyone else. I urge for protesters to be peaceful.

But can we at least — without condoning or judging — understand why sometimes, for some, it gets to the point where there seems to be no other alternative but violence?

Let’s look for ways to interrupt the cycle and practice empathy. Let’s understand each other better. The artists and works in this exhibition break down the figurative walls in society and speak to the frustration, anger, pride, history and beauty that people of color feel every day. The exhibition allows the conversation about our differences to continue in a respectful, meaningful and caring way.

The need for such a conversation becomes greater every day, and VAE Raleigh is a catalyst in this.

In this exhibition, we try to answer the following:

  • Whose perception defines people of color?
  • Why is there fear among many when it comes to people of color?
  • How can we help dismantle stereotypes?

Through artwork and community events, I think we can at least begin to answer these questions and look for solutions. We also hope to educate people on where we have been, where we are and where we need to go.

The exhibition offers a historical perspective with works by André Leon Gray, Lamar Whidbee and Charles Williams, the latter’s piece “Hauled Away / San Francisco 1968” explores the 1968 minority student protests in San Francisco. Antoine Williams and Jamila Davenport offer works that speak to the perceptions of people of color, with Davenport offering portraits of black men in front of the American flag. Saba Taj and William Paul Thomas show Muslim women and black men smiling and sharing moments of happiness in their works. Carrie Nobles and Dare Coulter show the beauty of black women and girls. Darryl Hurts’ work seeks to motivate and inspire with artwork of minority celebrities such as Lauryn Hill.

A huge part of VAE’s mission is to show how accessible the arts community is. So as curators, Linda Dallas and I asked our programming committee to help with events related to “Black On Black” that will hopefully not only open the doors, but keep them propped open so we can continue to share all that the arts community offers.

Art is one of the best ways to express our thoughts, feelings and insecurities. We hope to keep the civil dialogue going in the right direction and art is one tool to do that.

That’s why we need “Black On Black.”

“Black On Black”
February 27 to April 30
American Tobacco Campus, Reed Building Lobby
318 Blackwell Street, Durham

Previous showing:
October 7 to November 4
VAE Raleigh, 309 W. Martin Street, Raleigh


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