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These Kansas City Art Venues Are Highlighting The Work of Artists Of Color

Gordon Parks was assigned to cover civil rights and sports legend Muhammad Ali for two periods, during 1966 and 1970. Ali is pictured here meeting with reporters in London.
Gordon Parks
The Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks was assigned to cover civil rights and sports legend Muhammad Ali for two periods, during 1966 and 1970. Ali is pictured here meeting with reporters in London.

Several local museums and galleries are featuring work created by Black artists and centering Black experiences from Kansas City to the Caribbean.

This year has ushered in racial reckonings across American society. Governmental institutions, sports teams, private corporations and art museums are all being forced to account for long-standing societal disparities and a lack of diversity. And, several Kansas City institutions are working to meet that challenge head on.

"We're really taking a look at some of the deficits in our collecting history," says Erin Dziedzic, director of curatoral affairs at the Kemper Museum of Modern Art.

The result is that more museums are featuring work by artists of color that centers the Black experience.

Given the financially precarious situation many museums have found themselves in recently, and with more people than usual staying closer to home for Thanksgiving because of the pandemic, this week may be a good time to visit a Black-centered art exhibit.

At the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

The "Divergences" collection by Dominican artist Joiri Minaya is the fifth in the Kemper Museum's Atrium Projects, which gives emerging and mid-career Latino artists a chance to create something on a grand scale — the works are displayed on a 25-foot-tall wall.

Minaya's installation layers abstract tropical wallpaper patterns, inspired partly by the landscape of the historic Quindaro Townsite, with digital photo collages of camoflagued female figures.

"Her work often focuses on decolonizing imposed histories and cultures and ideas," says Dziedzic, "looking at what people's stereotypical visions of the Caribbean experience are, and really breaking those down into the more nuanced versions of what they actually are."

The Kemper is also featuring black and whites by Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey. The "Night Coming Tenderly, Black" series reimagines sites along the Underground Railroad, and casts the world in a dark, silvery tone.

Dziedzic's personal favorite comes from a collection by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime, "Tightrope."

Standing in front of the exhibit's title piece transports you, she says. "You feel like you could be on a ship."

"Tightrope: The Dominant," by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime
Phoebe d'Huerle
Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan
"Tightrope: The Dominant," by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime

Sime's medium is reclaimed computer parts he finds in markets, then repurposes into vast architectural landscapes and patterns.

"(What) I always find quite interesting about artists is how they take materials that some people think is outdated or garbage, and put it into one object that can tell so many different stories," Dziedzic says.

Visitors need to reserve timed tickets online. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving, but open during regular hours the rest of the week. Go to KemperArt.org for more information.

"The Image of a Champion" at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Kansan Gordon Parks was the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life magazine, and has been lauded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. In 1966, and again four years later, he was assigned to cover another icon — Muhammad Ali.

Photos from those assignments constitute "The Image of a Champion" exhibit on display through April 4.

The two admired and respected each other, and Parks was able to capture the boxing champion with his guard down, says photography curator April Watson, "and ultimately present a very complex, very human portrait of the young athlete at a time when a lot of middle-class white American readers ... were very divided in their opinion on him."

Parks was born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, and got his start as a government photographer chronicling the country's social conditions.

"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," Parks said in 1999. "I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

Last month, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced it was cutting its budget by 25% and laying off 36 staffers to cope with financial challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among those who left were two of three photography curators, Keith Davis and Jane Aspinwall.

Under their supervision, the museum chipped away at disparities in its photo collection, Watson says. "We really did make a concerted effort to try to collect more artists of color, particularly African Americans."

Visitors need to reserve timed tickets online and must wear a mask and socially distance. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving, but open during regular hours the rest of the week. Go to Nelson-Atkins.org for more information.

"Real Black: A Spectrum of the Black Present" at the UMKC Gallery of Art

The work of 11 Black Kansas City artists is on display through Dec. 11 at the art gallery in the Fine Arts Building on UMKC's Volker campus. The gallery is hosting a family event the day after Thanksgiving so folks can see the exhibit outside of regularly scheduled hours. A RSVP is required, and admittance will be metered to limit the number of people in the exhibit at one time.

"Real Black: A Spectrum of the Black Present" illustrates both the experiences of living Black artists and visions of the future, according to the gallery's website, and includes pieces by Danielle Randle, Kat Looney and the late muralist Evan Jackson.

"We selected the work to fit into three areas, works which highlight acts of social justice, the beauty of Black reality as well as works that focus on the feature," UMKC art student and exhibit co-curator Shaka Myrick told KC Studio last month."

Modern pop culture is weaved with call-outs to descendants of slaves in Aaron Cecil's mixed-media offerings. Black love and "framily" — friends as family — are on full display in Makayla Booker's “Blaque 365: Group Dynamics" photos.

More information about safety precautions and attending the gallery's family Friday event can be found at the UMKC Gallery of Art's website.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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