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"The Blacker the Berry" Highlights the Work of Women of Color Artists

Myra Lambert, <i>Behind the Trees</i>

Myra Lambert, Behind the Trees

It's been a hell of a couple of weeks for America, as two high-profile cases of white cops killing unarmed black males have resulted in no indictments. Communities across the country, including Minneapolis, have responded in protest on the streets and on social media. Some of the most powerful voices come from artists of color, who are uniquely positioned to express righteous anger at our times. "The Blacker the Berry,"  now at Intermedia Arts, opened before the grand jury verdict clearing Darren Wilson was announced, but the show illustrates just how strong a voice has been developed by Twin Cities artists of color.

Curated by Shá Cage, "The Blacker the Berry" included live performances in November, but the visual-arts exhibit continues to be on view through January 10. Featuring a diverse mix of female artists of color from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, the show runs the gamut from political pieces directly dealing with racism to more identity-focused works. 

For the show, Cage asked the participating women of color to reflect on the phrase "the blacker the berry," and to come up with original works of art that speak to what that phrase means to them. The Blacker the Berry is the title of a Harlem Renaissance novel by Wallace Thurman about a dark-skinned black woman who is discriminated against by people in her own community because of her skin is so dark. 

A number of the pieces explore this topic by celebrating the beauty of black and brown women. Regina Marie Williams, for example, shows a number of gorgeous photographs of black women using black-and-white photography. One piece, called Hands Blackberry Bramble, features a pair of black hands clasped together, with another hand holding them in support. 

Another powerful work is Ifrah Mansour's Corn for Ayayo, which stands in the center of the gallery. Shaped as a woman wrapped in a red cloth, the figure leans forward over a plate full of corn. Made of willow sticks constructing the armature of the sculpture, the figure has an opening near where the corn is placed on burlap, so that the figure also acts as a kind of hut. Accompanying the work is a piece of writing about a Somali woman, named Axado, who refused to leave her corn farm and continued to feed the rebel men, despite her corn being stolen countless times. 

Chrys Carroll: Strange Fruit 

Chrys Carroll: Strange Fruit 

The piece, both in its size and the poignant gesture of the figure, offers a startling image, which Mansour's narrative complements in a satisfying way. 

In the exhibit, another phrase gets referred to more than once. "Strange Fruit," by Jewish composer Abel Meeropol, is a song about lynching of black men, made famous by Billie Holiday. The darkly poetic song repeats as a source material in several of the works, which are particularly striking in the wake of Ferguson. Imagery of black bodies hanging from a tree piercingly resonates right now in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. 

Of the more haunting representations is Chrys Carroll's sculptural work, titled Strange Fruit. The piece includes eight miniature black trees with branches willowing as if there is wind, mounted on pieces of wood and hung on the wall. The stark imagery implies, rather than depicts, the horrific history of lynchings in America. The simplicity of Carroll's trees are what make them so powerful.  

Another piece that seems to suggest that history is Myra Lambert's Behind the Trees, a painting of three yellow, geometrically shaped trees with a blue string wrapped around each. Against the black background the trees, like in Carroll's work, have an impact both in their simplicity and also in the horrific narrative to which these trees refer. 

The "Strange Fruit" imagery also connects the exhibit to last Saturday's Choreographers' Evening. This year's showcase at the Walker Art Center, curated by Kenna Cottman, featured nearly all artists of color. That show had a piece that used the song, performed by Deneane Richburg, while the house lights were on, implicating the audience in violence against people of color. Like "The Blacker the Berry," Choreographers' Evening was framed with a social-justice message. Cottman articulated this framing by reading a poem her daughter had written in the wake of the grand jury decision, and having the performers all lie on the ground in a die-in gesture before standing with arms raised (as if to say "don't shoot") for curtain call. 

What was amazing about the evening was the powerful force of so many local artists of color onstage, similar to "The Blacker the Berry" exhibition. Both indicate a growing strength within the Twin Cities community of artists of color who are gaining a platform for expression.  

IF YOU GO:

"The Blacker the Berry"

Intermedia Arts

Through January 10, 2015