Samaria Cantey, a 17-year-old junior at North Charleston High School, is reading her words on the wall of the Gibbes Museum of Art.
To be colorful as a black girl / is to have fashion to let the world know / you are you and know your name.
Above this line of poetry is the painting that inspired it, Juliana Huxtable’s “Untitled (Psychosocial Stuntin’),” a purple-toned inkjet print of a black woman with bantu knots in her hair.
“It was so unreal because I don’t really go to museums,” Cantey said. “I write poems but I’ve never had a poem posted up in a museum for everyone else to see.”
The painting, and Cantey’s poem are part of a special exhibition at the Gibbes called “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem.” Thanks to an education outreach program organized by the Gibbes, with grant funding from Alice Walton’s foundation, Art Bridges, students at North Charleston High School, James Island Charter High School and Military Magnet Academy have worked with Charleston Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker to create poetry associated with the works in the exhibition.
The show, associated with Spoleto Festival USA and on tour during a $175 million construction project, features more than 70 pieces from The Studio Museum’s permanent collection, including works by Kehinde Wiley, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett.
The old building at 144 W. 125th St. in New York will be demolished to make way for a new facility conceived and built to accommodate the museum’s programming. In the meantime, the art will travel.
“We wanted this exhibition to create multiple entry points into thinking about, seeing and understanding works by artists of African descent,” curator Connie Choi said. “We wanted to create an exhibition that ... could speak to people who are coming at it from all different walks of life.”
The traveling exhibit was co-organized by the New York-based American Federation of Arts, which raised money, secured venues, developed education programming and published a catalog. The tour continues through 2020, with additional stops in Kalamazoo, Mich.; Northampton, Mass; Seattle; and Salt Lake City. The Gibbes Museum is the only Southern venue of the rotation.
The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968 to promote artists of African descent. For more than 10 years now, the Gibbes Museum, too, has been making an effort to diversify its collection and better reflect the community it serves.
The Gibbes has been acquiring new works by African-American artists, mounting large and small exhibitions, sometimes self-reflective and self-critical. It has been championing local black artists such as Fletcher Williams and basket-maker Mary Jackson. And it has organized public discussions and other events meant to draw attention to matters of race and representation and the role of the museum.
The “Black Refractions” show and the student poetry provide a refreshing alternative to typical museum fare, according to Gibbes artist-in-residence Fletcher Williams.
“That’s a brand new experience for a lot of young people, to see that magic in a space where you don’t typically find yourself existing,” he said.
In 2008, The Gibbes mounted a large-scale show called “Landscapes of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art,” which examined how these vast properties in the South have been portrayed, sometimes in romanticized or manipulative ways.
In 2009, The Gibbes commissioned artists Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page to scrutinize the museum’s holdings of 10,000 works and consider the collection in the context of race, class and gender. The resulting installation, “Prop Master,” revealed, among other things, that the museum’s inventory included only 40 works by black artists. In the years since the 2009 show, the museum has purchased or received as gifts 28 works by black artists.
“Black Refractions” is the latest in the museum’s effort to show the works of more artists of color on the walls of its galleries.
“The Studio Museum brings this whole storyline together featuring (black artists) as part of (an effort) to really fill this gap,” said Sara Arnold, director of curatorial affairs at The Gibbes. “It’s a much broader perspective than we are probably capable on our own to present, and I think it’s important to bring exhibitions that have this story of national and international resonance to our community.”
The show has drawn many to the museum.
“Given what’s happened in this city with Walter Scott and the Emanuel Nine, I think everyone knows this is a good time to bring this exhibition here, not only to build the morale of the city, but to then continue these conversations about race and class, in a more nuanced manner.” Williams said, referring to the April 2015 police shooting of an unarmed black man in North Charleston and the mass shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in June of that same year.
Some of the works in the Studio Museum exhibition certainly prompt reflection on the racial politics of the U.S., but some of the objects are striking for other reasons, Arnold said.
“There are those celebratory moments in a lot of the pieces,” she said “And that’s where the show) gives this fuller picture.”
Kate Cummings is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.