From forced crossings of the Atlantic Ocean amid farewells left unsaid to joyful baptisms into new life at the river’s edge, from poolside access denied to stereotypes about not being able to swim, water in many forms has shaped moments of joy, pain and power for Black Americans.
“Water: The Agony & Ecstasy of the Black Experience,” which can be seen through March 28 at McGuffey Art Center, is taking a multimedia approach to a topic that flows through centuries and cultures.
The exhibition features works by Bolanle Adeboye, Tronja Anglero, Janee Bradford (Marley Nichelle), Sahara Clemons, Ellis Finney, Larry D. Giles, Clinton Helms, Maleik Jackson, Veronica Jackson, Dena Jennings, Jae Johnson, Leslie Lillard, Benita Mayop, Jackie Merritt, Richard “Kweisi” Morris, Tobiah Mundt, Adrienne Olicver, Kori Price, Dorothy Marie Rice, Darrell Rose, Amdane Sanda, Benford D. Stellmacher Jr., Derrick J. Waller, Lillie Williams and Michael E. Williams.
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It’s curated by the Charlottesville Black Arts Collective, a panel of seven artists — Price, Waller, Clemons, Jennings, Johnson, Mundt and Lillie Williams. Together, the team united participating artists from diverse backgrounds and experience levels who bring a wide range of perspectives. And before long, the collective’s members realized that the exhibition afforded opportunities to bring fresh viewpoints and vision far beyond the gallery walls.
“There’s so much joy to being a Black person, but there’s so much pain over the past 400 years,” said Price, a photographer. “There’s water in everything. Our ancestors came across the Atlantic Ocean. Sweating on the dance floor after you’ve pressed your hair. It encompasses the whole theme.”
The seven members of the collective soon realized that their task was bigger than a single exhibition — and they were just getting started.
“All of us are artists, but I don’t think any of us had curated a show,” Waller said. “We had to start from the ground up. We enjoyed working together so much that we wanted to keep working together.
“A lot of folks on the team have full-time jobs. You’re already not in this art-centered world. We want to extend that hand to help other artists.”
To that end, “Water” already is flowing into an introduction into art circles for talented newcomers.
What started out as an opportunity to focus on works by Black artists became a way to bring more creative people into the world of galleries, receptions, talks and future exhibitions — “to get their feet in the door,” Waller said.
Many artists never make the leap from solitary painting in the garage to presenting gallery talks before audiences because they simply don’t know where to start. The exhibition in particular, and the collective in general, have helped introduce talented newcomers to a whole new audience — as well as to the concept of recognizing themselves, at long last, as artists.
“We were so surprised that they had not shown before,” Waller said of some of the newcomers. But he understands the power of opportunities and where they can lead.
“Once I got the opportunity to show work at Second Street Gallery in October, all these opportunities started coming,” Waller said.
Price said the collective also can provide encouragement and mentorship moments as new artists begin to seize these opportunities and stumble into self-doubt.
“Impostor syndrome is a problem at every stage in your career,” Price said. “All of us are struggling with it.
“Yes, you are worthy of having your work in a gallery. Yes, your work is valuable. Yes, it is art.”
Like countless other artists, Price has a day job; she’s a project manager. She gets it.
“It’s so important to be able to say I’m an artist,” she said. “I’m both.”
What started as an effort to get more Black artists represented in the gallery grew into a longer time on display there — the closing date pushed past the end of Black History Month to include most of March — and a moment of hope for the kind of cultural change that art can help bring to life.
“I’ve seen a really beautiful shift in how they’re facing anti-racism head-on,” Price said of the Charlottesville community. “Our show is just a small part of a shift coming to Charlottesville.”
The exhibition can be seen in person at McGuffey from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Masks are required, and visitors will be asked to observe proper social distancing.
“Water” also is available online at mcguffeyartcenter.com, where visitors can linger over profiles of the artists.
A variety of companion events are in the works, including virtual artist talks, a short film screening, poetry readings and livestreamed performances. Stretching the exhibition into late March increases the possibility that favorable weather for outdoor performances may materialize.
“It’s a challenge for everybody with COVID,” Waller said. “We wanted to do performances as well. We wanted to have dancing and singing, but we kind of had to change our philosophy on that.
“One of the advantages in pushing out to March is we want to do at least one performance. We have been able to put this together in a very challenging time.”
Jane Dunlap Sathe is the features editor for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7249 or firstname.lastname@example.org