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Self Definition in My Black Is ... 

An exhibition of Black artists at the Reese Bullen Gallery

click to enlarge Mykaela "Mickey" Montgomery's "Forgotten Cowboy," colored pencil.

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Mykaela "Mickey" Montgomery's "Forgotten Cowboy," colored pencil.

Now through Dec. 3, nine local artists showcase their unique expressions of Black identity at Cal Poly Humboldt's Reese Bullen Gallery. The exhibition My Black Is ... centralizes Black and brown bodies in an academic institutional gallery setting, a context that can be dominated by white people, and presents an array of media, styles, energies and messages.

I attended the show's lively opening on Nov. 2 with a section of students from Cal Poly's Fundamentals of Drawing course. In a group discussion about the work, several students noted their appreciation of Kassandra Rice's illustrations — "Black Sailormoon," "Little Mermaid and Black Azula," "Land Back" and "Black Katana" — commenting that the artist's characters were refreshingly un-stereotyped. Rice writes that her art "reflects her community as characters of mainstream animated TV shows and movies."

There was also a consensus among students about the stunningly vibrant colored pencil drawings of Mykaela "Mickey" Montgomery. Many remarked that they were shocked to discover that these slick, detailed, slightly stylized portraits were not actually paintings and wondered how the artist was able to achieve such cleanly blended, bright color with the chosen media.

My Black Is ... is a collaboration with Black Humboldt, a community organization founded in 2018 by Dionna Ndlovu (née Fletcher) and Mo Harper-Desir, with goals to "enlighten, empower, and entertain our Black community in Humboldt County through events made FOR US and BY US." According to the group's website, "It all started as a social media platform to gauge what the 1.5% Black population could look like and a future vision for creating events, workshops, and forums. Black Humboldt hopes to provide a space where people can see a positive and beautiful reflection of themselves."

Harper-Desir explains My Black Is ... was open to any local artists that self-identifies as Black, African, African American, Black American, Afro Latiné, Caribbean, Afro Caribbean or from anywhere within the African diaspora, and participants could include any work relevant to the exhibition's theme. She states, "Every Black artist I know showcases their skills in so many different ways and mediums, and it's truly amazing what we can create under a constant 'white gaze' and expectations. I think we are also a community of support and when we come together, what we can do is endless."

An exhibiting artist in My Black Is ..., Harper-Desir shares through her work her "own lived experiences as a Black woman and all the things I see through [her] eyes." She has a short film and several small photograph in the show. Her images are quiet, colorful and poetic, often incorporating fields of negative, open space, and fragments that are just out of focus, as though the viewer is moving through space or just looking away. The thoughtful framing makes one aware of, and curious about, the eye behind the camera.

Speaking about the aims of My Black Is ... Harper-Desir reflects, "I think it's critical to host and platform Black expression in all spaces available in Humboldt County. As a micro community in this area, we are always fighting for representation, but more importantly representation curated and presented by us. I also think that there are common misconceptions that exist when it comes to Black and Brown communities existing and thriving in 'traditional art spaces,' aka anything outside of hip hop, rap, spoken word, etc. Creating this space for local Black Artists is working to dismantle all those connotations as well as provide that space for self-governed representation." 

The Reese Bullen Gallery, located on the Arcata campus of Cal Poly Humboldt in the Art Building, near the corner of Laurel Drive and B Street, is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m, Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and by appointment. Email rbg@humboldt.edu or call (707) 826-3629. Admission is free.

L.L. Kessner is an Arcata-based artist and writer.

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