Arts Center Presents ‘Black Matter’

On May 6, the Arts Center opened an exhibit showcasing the work of five contemporary Black artists living and working in Oregon. The show was conceived as an effort to both address an imbalance in representation and to increase the visibility of Black artists and artists of color more broadly.   

By sharing their voices and creativity, “Black Matter” intended to honor the expressions and perspectives of Black artists that have been absent from local galleries as well as in the predominantly white-centric spaces of art institutions throughout the nation.  

The five artists who were selected for the exhibit are Jeremy Okai Davis, Jamila Clarke, Mosley Wotta (aka MO WO), Maya Vivas, and Christine Miller. Black artist Tammy Jo Wilson of Oregon City was invited to curate the exhibit, given her curatorial experience and broad community connections established as the President and co-founder of Art in Oregon (AiO) — a visual arts non-profit whose mission is to build and sustain bridges between Oregon artists and communities.   

Discussions  

Over the last month, the Arts Center hosted two virtual conversations with the artists, which can be viewed on their website and YouTube channel: a “Lunch@Home” Artist Talk on May 15, and a Panel Discussion moderated by Wilson on May 22. The conversations included talks with the artists about their creative backgrounds and inspirations, as well as a talk with Wilson about her philosophy behind putting this exhibit together.   

“As a Black female artist, there’s so many exhibitions out there that my work doesn’t fit in, or that have different conversations that don’t quite make sense for the direction of my work, and I was seeing that for a lot of other artists,” said Wilson. “My idea was to have a show that could represent Black artists and give them the freedom to talk about what is interesting and important to them and their work, and not force them to talk about the pain and the trauma of the Black experience, especially with everything that’s going on right now.”  

In the panel discussion, the artists were asked questions by Wilson that revolved around what it means to be an artist of color. Topics included the importance of being seen as a Black artist, the perceived obligation as Black artists to create art that speaks about being Black, and the push to generalize and represent the Black community through their work.   

“Growing up in Central Oregon from ‘92 till now, any time I get the relief of being seen as, and included in, the Black experience, there’s a tremendous feeling of community,” said WOtta. “I’m interested in the gaps of understanding and how we can talk about the awkward stuff or the difficult stuff… work that announces these dry spots of ignorance that we can water with a little bit of insight. Right now, we’re seeing so often that there are the Black voices, the trans voices, the ‘others,’ the peripheral folks; these are becoming the voices that we have to listen to right now because, if you can allow yourself the benefit of the doubt, whether or not they’re artists, just their life experiences are telling you what is not going to work out for anybody.”  

“I like that ‘dry spots of ignorance’ phrasing,” said Davis, whose work is also featured in permanent installations at OSU’s Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center. “Because a lot of times, with the work I’ve been making in the last five years, I’ve thought about my own personal dry spots of ignorance, like African-American history that I didn’t learn or didn’t get a chance to learn when I was a kid, or that I didn’t have the desire at that point to learn. So, my work now is me kind of making up for that — course correcting this dry spot of ignorance that I had growing up, and hopefully, in turn, filling in the gaps for other people who have that same kind of lack of education when it comes to African-American history.”  

Wilson also asked the artists how they decide whether an idea they have for a new artwork or series is worth investing their time and energy into, noting the unique challenges that artists experience in questioning whether their work holds up in heavy and intense moments in time.  

“I think that goes back to the obligation idea; the feeling that we’re obligated, as Black artists, to speak to what’s happening today,” said Davis. “I think that’s where the pressure comes from, and it can be put on by yourself, by your community, and just watching the news every day and seeing things happen makes you feel like you’re supposed to respond in a certain way. But I don’t think you’re supposed to; I think it’s important to, but not necessary. I struggled with this a little bit last year after George Floyd, and when I was in the studio working and feeling like I needed to make paintings that spoke to it, because you see his portrait all over the place: on buildings, people posting his face on Instagram, and you feel like, ‘I’m supposed to do something with this,’ but I had to come back to the idea that, just as a Black artist, making art, being in the community, and doing positive things is enough.”  

Join the Celebration  

A closing reception will take place at the main gallery from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on June 19, the final day of the exhibit. The show will later travel to the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newburg, where the Parrish Gallery will provide the opportunity to feature additional Black and African artists from across the state.   

“Once the show was really starting to come together, and I started finding artists on top of everything that was happening in the world, I really wanted to expand the show and include more people,” said Wilson. “And then the Chehalem Cultural Center invited me to do the show again up there. It’s going to take all of the great things that the Arts Center started and really invested in and trusted me with, and take this opportunity to the next level.”  

More information about the exhibit, including links to the artists’ websites, can be found on the Art Center’s website.  

“Black Matter” is made possible through the sponsorship support of the Oregon Cultural Trust, the NAACP Corvallis/Albany branch, the Howland Fund, the Steele Family Fund, Tom and Kelli Steele, and Sharon Rackham King.   

By Emilie Ratcliff