Traces of What Has Happened

Essay by Curator, Ciera Alyse McKissick

Left Design by: Richie Parks

“There Are Black People in the Future,” Alisha Wormsley simply stated on a black billboard with white text placed in Pittsburgh's East End neighborhood in 2017. Black identity and culture often finds itself defined and redlined between the past, present, and future, oftentimes in a constant state of oscillation. relic explores concepts of time — and timelessness — through Black cultural artifacts. McKissick, poses the question, “what will we find when we get there?” to explore what shapes future identities in the beyond. relic serves as an improvisational burial of works tied to memory shaped through documentation, intuition, collecting, spirituality, and the land through mineral and food.

Through the work of artists, Abigail Lucien, Janelle Ayana Miller, Kevin Demery, Lakela Brown, Rhonda Wheatley, and Shonna Pryor, McKissick draws connections to create a visual time capsule of objects rooted in the complexity of what it means to define blackness within an object and for blackness to seen. “It is a desire to live in a future that is now, because of the precarity of black quotidian life wherein tomorrow is fleeting and often too risky to wait for or imagine,” Tina Kampt says in Listening to Images.

Kevin Demery is interested in the space between the past and the present and the sad truth that we have “lost the ability to collect memory.'' His piece, “Shell” is a fleeting and whimsical portrayal of a found discarded child’s hoodie, worn, and slightly tattered with a bodily figure composed of shells. For Demery, the shells as much as the hoodie are a metaphor for a relic, existing as fossilized records of things that were once living. Norman Lewis, believes that “blackness can function both as presence and absence.” The same could be said of Demery’s reference to the hoodie and the bodies that inhabit them.The hoodie as an emblem has become a politically charged symbol within the American canon. One of loss and martyrdom, but also of adornment — a cloak of protection and also one of pain. Demery’s drum piece, When Boys are Birds and Men are Soil, referencing John Singleton’s film “Boyz N the Hood '' also explores similar themes in it’s portrayal of the scene of Ricky’s death, who Singleton says represents the death of the Black American Dream.

Shonna Pryor’s Ledger Papers is a collection of history and represents another aspect of the Black American Dream. It chronicles the history of the first Black entrepreneurs, including Frederick Douglas, from the archive of the Freedmen's Bureau. The centerpiece of the exhibition features a wall of gold silkscreen ledger pages assembled as wallpaper. Pryor references, on one hand, that Black people’s labor created the economy of the country, and then through the ledger papers shows the shifting of autonomy, yet the limitations of it. Perhaps the work is abstracted and hard to decipher for that reason, with the illegibility representing the barriers of entry black entrepreneurs faced - and still do.

Photo Captions: Top Left: Shell, Kevin Demery; Bottom Left: When Boys are Birds and Men are Soil, Kevin Demery; Right: WallPAPER of Respect , Shonna Pryor

“The American Dream” was also built on the backs of free black labor, thus the black experience is inherently tied to the land, so much so that the land itself could be a relic. And it’s hard not to think about care when it comes to discussions of labor. Haitian artist, Abigail Lucien’s bronze cast pieces are the tension between these three parts of storytelling of the past, present and future. Lucien says their work with bronze represents the transformation of material into the present space that can serve as archeological relics transfigured into functional objects.

They began thinking about the work in response to the uprisings of 2020 where many cities across America were seeing the destruction of and removal of bronze sculptural iconography of slaveholders and colonizers, and found themselves questioning the originality of a raw thing being transformed into a symbol of care. While the bronze objects are not necessarily made from Christopher Columbus’ iron foot, they also allude to the charged history and function of iron, who had access to it, and how we can recycle these images and their purpose. Even more layered comes the conversation of the origins of iron, the Iron Age, and how it found itself on earth, alluding to the colonization of earth’s minerals itself, and the power dynamics of how colonization is mirrored in nature through oxygen and the Great Oxidation Event, the Earth's first mass extinction which led rise to much of our iron development. Their work also inherently examines connection to home, the land, and memory and how their Haitian roots influence the interpretation of a relic, memory of place, and those they carry with them.

Like Lucien, both Rhonda Wheatley and Lakela Brown have been able to speak to history directly through found or re-imaginations of relics, much like Betye Saar, who integrates actual historical objects into her pieces and saw them as “a source of spiritual redemption and ritual.” This is most prevalent in Wheatley’s work through her use of Hybrid Devices and Energy Grids created from objects collected over time and considered obsolete like radios, clocks, and antennas, transposed with plant life, water, and crystals. Much like Saar’s work, which she describes as “mojos a term referring to a magical amulet or charm that either works magic or heals,” Wheatley’s work also oscillates between different realms, times and dimensions as a way “to leave behind some evidence that some of us were creating magic.”

Photo Captions: Top Left: 3N1, Abigail Lucien; Bottom Left: Site Specific Installation for Hyde Park Art Center, Rhonda Wheatley Right: Composition with Bamboo Earrings, Impressed with Gold Overlapping with Hand, Lakela Brown

Brown’s work reimagines current black cultural objects and iconography and recreates them into historical artifacts for the future. Adornments of today like door knocker earrings, grills, and chains are cast in resin to create abstracted impressions in slabs that look like they have been unearthed and placed in a museum. These “still lifes” as she calls them, become ghosts of an object, voided space, and evidence that something was there,” similarly to the intent of Demery’s shelled figure. Brown, originally a trained traditional figurative sculptor, moved away from the Eurocentric idea of the figure because “people don’t value Black bodies,” instead they value our contributions to the mainstream culture.”

Janelle Ayana Miller’s work explores the cultural artifact as a relic through both objects and images. Both Brown and Miller’s exploration of ethnobotanical objects carry the weight of what lies unsaid — the oral history and memory tied to an object. Brown’s imprint of a collard, and Miller’s small ceramic okra pieces, evoke a feeling of home and intergenerational or ancestral knowing. Brown recalls her grandmother’s hands cleaning greens, and Miller’s okra she said, “is one of the crops that we can talk about the journey through, and what we carried with us.”

In her collection of over 100 church fans, Miller says she began collecting them because they were so scarce, as were images of the foundation of the Black family, which is so heavily prevalent on the church fans she finds. The message of the church fan is two fold— the image on the church fan, and the fan as a black cultural emblem. If you grew up black, and in the church, the church fan can hold many feelings and memories outside of their functional use for cooling. They can transport you to seeing the church hat, the pews that held them, and the even catching the holy ghost. Like Picturing Us by Deborah Willis says of photography — these church fans and photographs imposed on them, “are relics of the past,” and the objects in this exhibition, and what they represent are “traces of what has happened.”