How to Survive Systemic Racism in America

Formed in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter is a collective whose manifesto states, “We come together in the face of the erasure, exclusion, and outright violence against Black bodies that has flourished under global white supremacy.” The group’s latest exhibition, Three.: On Visibility and Camouflage at We Buy Gold, the pop-up art space in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, continues the collective’s mission to center the lives of black women, queer, and gender nonconforming people.

The exhibition, curated by collective member Daniella Rose King, features works by five of the group’s artists: LaKela Brown, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Sam Vernon, Patrice Renee Washington, and Lachell Workman. Their work explores visibility and camouflage as it relates to the black female experience.

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Installation view: Lachell Workman, Still Alive, 2017, Mixed media, Dimensions variable.

“We were invited by Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels to create an exhibition at We Buy Gold, and we decided it would be good opportunity to highlight our curatorial practice,” Rose King explains. The group recently engaged the public in a series of performances. “The exhibition’s themes really came out of being a part of BWA for BLM.”

She says, “I am trying to illustrate, through a number of different artistic practices, how it might be possible to suggest that visibility and camouflage are strategies that have implications in terms of how you might structure your identity, disguise it, and move around in the world.” The artists in THREE. primarily use symbols and markers of identity to explore what it means to express blackness publicly and covertly as a way of surviving systematic racism and finding freedom in personal and communal gestures.

Patrice Renee Washington, (R): Uncle John’s Cabin, 2017, Porcelain frame, Stoneware, Grout, Plywood, 16 x 10.5 x 2 inches. (L): Anti-Grip Supremacist Resistance Trainer 5000, 2016, Glazed Stoneware, 12 x 44 x 10 inches.

Washington’s objects — hoodoo jug and stoneware — consider how meaning accumulates around symbols in gendered and racialized ways. Anti-Grip Supremacist Resistance Trainer 5000, Washington’s wall sculpture that resembles a pull up bar, alludes to the objecthood of black material and perhaps the need for an architecture of black power. The work also seems to play off the great American myth that one can, no matter the degree of discrimination, pull themselves up purely by the strength of will.

Installation view: Sam Vernon, Self Portrait with Twelve Boxes series, 2015. Plexiglass donation boxes, metal locks, ink, paper, inkjet prints on canvas. 12 x 12 x 12 inches.

Vernon’s take on black identity is intimate. In Self Portrait with Twelve Boxes, a series of plexiglass boxes filled with objects of personal significance, she explores layering as a process of identity. Brown’s casted reliefs of bamboo earrings, double rope chains, and a geometric installation of box braids, inspired by a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, considers how black histories might be written, if say, a future black community or archaeologist came across the objects of black femininity.

The element of camouflage is experienced visually and conceptually throughout the exhibition. Against a white wall, a white t-shirt is mounted. It would be missed if a projector, sitting on a book that has “FREEDOM” scrawled across its spine, wasn’t flashing slides over it. The work, Still Alive was created by Workman, and it flashes messages across the tee shirt in black text that often runs together, making each statement hard to read. After a moment of close consideration, a clearly written message appears: “JUSTICE FOR _______.”

Installation view: LaKela Brown’s wall reliefs.

The Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter manifesto ends by stating, “We make in the memory of Korryn Gaines, Alexia Christian, Mya Hall, Gabriella Nevarez, Shantel Davis, Miriam Carey, Malissa Williams, Sharmel Edwards, Latanya Haggerty… and countless others.”

“What I love about the artists that I’ve brought together, is they explore identity in very different ways,” says the curator. “In very intelligent and subtle ways, these artists are combatting anti-black racism and misogynistic practices.” King says that to mount the show in a space owned by a black woman radically challenges the politics of the commercial gallery and furthers the exhibition’s thematics. She adds, “I do believe the way we framed the exhibition, in terms of visibility and camouflage, in a lot of ways goes to the heart of how we work as a collective, which are not tendencies alien to black women living in America.”

THREE.: On Visibility and Camouflage continues through July 31 at We Buy Gold. Click here for more information.


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