TAWU artists’ network explores, expands Black culture: Northside exhibit reveals wonders of ‘The Art Within Us’

"Alot of families are in turmoil," said artist Christopher Harrison as he described the background for his painting titled "The Light." "No matter what happens in life, there is still a glimmer of hope," he said in explanation of his black and white work, which featured an orb of light glowing in the corner of the canvas.

Harrison, along with 14 other artists, presented their work at a reception and artists' talk held at the University of Minnesota Urban Research & Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC) last Friday evening, January 21, in North Minneapolis.

The group of artists comprises a supportive network, The Art Within Us (TAWU), which exists under the larger collective, Obsidian Arts. Currently located on the third floor of Pillsbury House at 3501 Chicago Avenue, Obsidian Arts seeks to support artists, curators, and art historians in the studied depiction of Black visual culture.

The TAWU show, "The Stories Within Us," presented work in several mediums. Describing the show, coordinator/organizer Loretta Day said, "This exhibit not only shows the variety of mediums that are pleasing to the eye, it is [also] hopeful that any artist of color who is interested in showing their work and doesn't know where to start [would find] TAWU a good avenue to explore."

Artists participating in the exhibit were, as pictured in the group photo left to right: Mica Lee Anders, Esther Osayande, Estela De Paola, Christopher-Aaron Deanes, Loretta Day, Onayemi Ogunkoye, Stephanie Morris, Sean Phillips, James L. Stroud, Jr., Christopher E. Harrison, Shirley Roberts, Richard Amos, Hawona Sullivan-Janzen (UROC curator) and Lee Tarver. Participating artists Melodee Strong, Lorenzo Crockett and Ron Brown are not in the photo.

The work displayed at the show included intimate details such as Stephanie Morris' close-up photograph of a pair of hands. "My dad passed away two year ago," Morris told the audience. "He always kept his hands very clean. This picture gave me a warm, loving memory of my father. With women - and men too, but I'll speak from a woman's perspective - women do have a mystique, and it's not until you look beyond and see the whole person do you see them in their entirety."

Mica Lee Anders included her digital photo print of three fictional jars of make-up. "This piece had a really long life to get to where it is here," Anders explained. "I was painting on canvas and intrigued by the colorings in make-up. I was intrigued with the names. A lot of the names of the colors for African Americans are food - toffee, caramel, chocolate - while it's not the same for [Whites]: sun-kissed, nude, sand. So I thought, what do we call ourselves and what are we called by others?"

Anders created her own illusionary cosmetic company, Common Complexions, and gave the foundation make-up colors their own names: high yellow, red bone, blue-black. The resulting painting provokes its patron into thinking about how words shape their self-image as well as their perception of others.

A show favorite, a commissioned mixed-media piece by Lorenzo Crockett titled "Thanks for the Cookies, Mamma," included part of Crockett's grandfather's shirt as a layering under the paint. Crockett also used other artifacts mixed in with the paint to enhance the emotional depth of a tender depiction of a mother and child.

Christopher Harrison's painting "Chicago & Lake" focused on a slice of urban landscape as a way of viewing the Metro's Black community. Described by the artist as an abstract view of the area, with the word "Shoes" visible referencing Roberts Shoe Store, it's a cubist work and "a bit distorted."

"We get a lot of distorted views about north and south Minneapolis, but they are actually beautiful places to live," Harrison declared. "The great thing about art is that there are no limits. People can do whatever they want. It's an expression of our humanity. We need, for our culture, to expand in art," the artist said.

Another TAWU artist, by example, agreed with Harrison. Opening the reception at 5:30 that evening, Onayemi Ogunkoye, instructor of West African percussion at Emily Gray Charter School, drummed for the audience of over 50 people.

Flanked by students Dantazia Davis, age 10, and Tyreese Banks, age nine, the trio played their African djembes to an appreciative crowd. By teaching children at a young age the art of African music, Ogunkoye improves the reach of the Black culture into all of society.

Ogunkoye also participated in the art exhibition with his own paintings of deities or Orisha, from the West African indigenous religion Yoruba. His work was among over 40 pieces displayed at UROC gallery at 2001 Plymouth Avenue North.

The TAWU show continues through February 28. See UROC's website for gallery hours: www.uroc.umn.edu/. For further information about TAWU, call Loretta Day at 612-787-3644.

Susan Budig welcomes reader responses to tomandsusan [at] juno [dot] com.

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