RISD Black Biennial at the RISD Museum, now through April 10th

The Gelman Student Gallery at the RISD Museum is completely filled with art in a way that feels enveloping and wonderfully overwhelming. When you first walk into the space, you’ll see an eight-foot-tall painting on the far wall, almost beckoning you towards it. It’s called “Bear Witness” by Bob Dilworth, a 70-year-old artist and RISD alum. Melaine Ferdinand-King is a PhD student in Africana Studies at Brown and one of the co-curators of the exhibit.

Melaine Ferdinand-King: Here you'll see an artist on a step stool or a ladder and the artist is painting five Black men that are wearing work uniforms, and they're looking out at the viewer or looking above the viewer in a lot of ways.

The men are surrounded by waves and dots of vibrant, fluorescent pinks, yellows and greens. Right next to the painting by the 70 year-old Dilworth, there’s a painting by Amadi Williams, a first-year RISD student. It depicts a family of four, sitting down and enjoying each other’s company.

Rey Londres is a photography BFA student at RISD and the other co-curator of the exhibit.

Rey Londres: And I feel like the difference between them is literally just like the 60 years that they share. But the sameness is the talent and the fervor and like the joy of the quality of the painting, just the fact that there's so much color and livelihood.

The RISD Black Biennial includes artists who are affiliated with RISD (currently or as alums) or who live in Rhode Island, and who identify as Black or part of the African diaspora. Rey Londres told me that it’s unusual to have non-students exhibit in the Gelman Gallery, but they felt that it was important to include a broad group of artists.

Londres: So it's the only time that you'll see a communal event like this taking place, or just like a community coming together to make something with a shared authorship.

Again, here’s Melaine Ferdinand King.

Ferdinand-King: And so we really wanted to find a way to bring together people who are mostly marginalized, invisibilized and bring them into a space that typically they drive past or walk past everyday, but have actually never been welcomed into.

Another stunning work in the gallery is Oculus, by Nafis M. White.

Londres: What we see here is a braided masterpiece.

It’s a circular piece, 8 feet in diameter, made out of braided hair.

Londres: It's weaving and maneuvering around and organic shapes and forms and it’s made up of like black, brown, reds, some purples, and orange tones.

Ferdinand-King: They speak centrally to like a Black woman's narrative. I think the inclusion of the Kankelon hair, the different braiding styles, the weaves, we don't ever see that usually in museum spaces.

The exhibit features paintings, photography, video, textile works and more. It also includes several pieces of apparel including a dress made by the Haus of Glitter, a costume for their “Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins: The Bamana Empire.” It’s made from a fabric printed with swirling patterns of green, red and gold.

Londres: I think the voluminousness of the dress, the way that it hangs and falls is really, like gracious and gorgeous and really centralizing to the space.

The dress is in the center of the gallery and complements the spiraling hair of the 8 foot Oculus. In fact, all of the works on the walls and in the space of the gallery seem to communicate with each other to build a narrative, an artwork as a whole. I asked Melaine Ferdinand-King to summarize the theme of the RISD Black Biennial.

Ferdinand-King: Thinking about both lack of representation and the tension between community members and institutions, we are really trying to create and curate a space that represented a new beginning and kind of a call to action.

Londres: And I would add that it's also a call to action to institutions to prioritize what the future can hold, rather than preserve what the past has already shown.

You can see the first RISD Black Biennial at the RISD Museum through April 10th. For The Public’s Radio, I’m James Baumgartner.