View: Artist glimpses past, present, future
Krislyn Placide, Journal & Courier TGIF Friday, January 15, 2015
It's that "Chicago influence."
It's not necessarily a bad thing — not when you look at the art, music and other forms of culture moving back and forth between the Windy City and our fair town.
On a recent visit to the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette, I strolled through time while examining the work of Chicago artist Gerald Griffin . His Purdue Black Cultural Center-sponsored exhibit, "Ambiguous Reflections of Race and Identity: A Question of Color," isn't only a set of portraits. It's a collection of archetypes, tied through the symbolism of black boxes, bondage and butterflies, that begs the question, "Who will you be?"
The past, remembered
Slavery seems to be the historical starting point of Griffin's exhibit, although one painting, "Mirror of the Past," goes even further back to portray ancient Egyptian royalty. Although American history begins with colonization, this piece serves as a reminder of a more glorified story of blackness. We see that shift in the meaning of blackness as African people become what is considered another human's property.
Slave ships are a common motif in Griffin's work, sometimes contrasted with the urban landscapes of today. One piece that stood out to me has "Black Friday" as an eerily appropriate title. Three nude women with chains at their feet appear to be waiting to be bought — one of them stares back at the water as if still hopeful that she might be able to return to her homeland. The title suggests that we can see the roots of modern capitalism, materialism and exploitation in transatlantic slave trade.
Examining the present
We simultaneously see more freedom and agency for black people and heightened mistrust of the police in 2016. A piece called "White House" shows President Barack Obama facing the building, looking on his achievement. It's considered newsworthy to be the "first" of one's group to accomplish something, but that doesn't stop other members of said group from being guilty until proven dead.
A young black with golden eyes catches the gaze of museumgoers in "In Dreams We Fly." With his butterfly wings and a thick afro forming a halo above his head, he looks like an angel. We see the innocence of a child, when so many of the young people killed in acts of police violence are cast as thugs, as people society should fear rather than love. The justification for the shooting of Tamir Rice is that the 12-year-old child playing with a toy gun looked older than he was. Slavery may be illegal, and we may have a black president, but the roots of racism still pervade society in more covert ways.
A glance toward the future
Griffin's characters often look thoughtful. As dreamers dissatisfied with the past and the present, they appear to imagine a safer, better reality in the future. "Her Choice" is a title that exemplifies this idea. The young woman in the painting sports her natural hair and gazes out toward something the viewer can't see. She could be in deep thought, making a choice that maybe she wouldn't have had the power to make 100 or 200 years ago.
Identifying as a black person in America has a different meaning for everyone, and it shifts over time. We can look at the past to see where we as a nation have come from, but the rest is an open-ended question. What would true equality look like? What does it mean to feel safe and protected? How does the psychology of a nation change to recognize the humanity of people who look a certain way? How long does that take?
There's so much to unpack in Griffin's exhibit that I invite you to take a look yourself. Take a bite of the gourmet cultural palate that Chicago has to offer — we can be grateful that we don't need to leave town to experience it.
Placide is a producer for the Indiana Media Group. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @dearkrislyn.
If you go
What: “Ambiguous Reflections of Race and Identity: A Question of Color,” works by Gerald Griffin
Sponsored by: The Purdue Black Cultural Center
Where: East Gallery, The Art Museum of Greater Lafayette, 102 S. 10th St.
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Feb. 28