Beyond ‘Black Refractions’

KIA turns exhibition into community conversation
Nwantinti, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2012. Acrylic, pastel, charcoal, colored pencil, and Xerox transfers on paper, The Studio Museum in Harlem.

On Sept. 14, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts will open its doors for Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem, a national traveling exhibition that spans 200 years of American art history.

The exhibition, which features 91 works and will run until Dec. 8, has only six stops in the U.S., and Kalamazoo is the only stop in the Midwest.

“This is one of the biggest things that’s happened in Kalamazoo related to African Americans,” says local artist Al Harris Jr., “Chicago doesn’t have that. Detroit doesn’t have that. And little old Kalamazoo is getting that.”

The KIA decided to celebrate the occasion by putting together two companion exhibitions and planning a host of collaborative community activities highlighting black artists from the community, the country and the world.

Where We Stand: Black Artists in Southwest Michigan will feature works by nine local artists, including Harris. (See related story:Where We Stand: Exhibit reveals area’s rich community of black artists)

Resilience: African American Artists as Agents of Change will present more than 60 paintings, photographs, works on paper and sculpture by African-American artists that are part of the KIA’s permanent collection. These works range from 1870 to the present and reflect African Americans’ “vital contributions to the story of American art and history,” according to the KIA website.

With the three simultaneous exhibitions, 90 percent of the art on the walls at the KIA this fall will be by African-American artists.

But the combination of these art exhibitions and related events is about more than just art, says Rehema Barber, the KIA’s chief curator. “It is about building bridges and creating conversations with and for our audiences about our common humanity,” she says.

The potential to expand the impact of the Black Refractions exhibit was quickly realized after the institute secured the exhibition last year, says Katie Houston, marketing manager at the KIA.

“Soon after, it became apparent that an exhibition showing off works the KIA had collected throughout the century could greatly complement it, and that turned into Resilience,” she says. “Our community show, Where We Stand, came into being when our community of stakeholders, who represent different aspects of arts and diversity in Kalamazoo, expressed strong interest in the project.”

The main exhibit features works from The Studio Museum in Harlem’s permanent collection and is touring the country while that museum constructs a new building. The KIA is the third stop on the exhibit’s six-stop tour, which also includes The Museum of the African Diaspora, in San Francisco; the Gibbes Museum of Art, in Charleston, S.C.; the Smith College Museum of Art, in Northampton, Mass.; the Frye Art Museum, in Seattle; and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, in Salt Lake City.

Among the artists whose work is in the exhibit are Kalamazoo native Titus Kaphar; Kalamazoo College graduate Julie Mehretu; and Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of President Barack Obama that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C.

"I am always seeking opportunities to maximize community impact through our collection and exhibitions,” says KIA Executive Director Belinda Tate. “In 2018, the KIA was the first to sign up for the Black Refractions tour. I recognized the opportunity to build a communitywide conversation around art and equity for a community eager to learn more about diverse American and global cultures.

“My goal was to make art a part of civic life for a broad spectrum of Kalamazoo through a suite of complementary shows that featured local artists, our stellar collection, and the international visual art leaders represented in Black Refractions.”

Tate says the KIA quickly found a team of partners throughout the community that would help the organization “introduce conversations about art and inclusion in circles of the community that we don't consistently access.”

“These will further our understanding of art as a mirror of our common humanity,” she says.

Its partners include the Black Arts & Cultural Center, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and WMU. The result is a slate of nearly 40 activities and events, from theater performances andspeakers to film screenings and the creation of new artworks on site.

”We have been delighted by the enthusiasm and positive energy generated by community collaborators creating their own numerous programs and events," says KIA Director of Education Michelle Stempien. “There is truly something for every age and every interest — and something new and different every week.”


Black Refractions Community Events

Below is a selection of the events planned in conjunction with the exhibition Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem and its companion exhibitions at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. A complete list of events, including artists’ talks, film screenings and more, is available at blackrefractionskalamazoo.org.

Art Hop: Spin n Images Preview Party, 5-8 p.m. Sept. 6, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, 4325 W. South St., with music by DJ Disobedience, free.

Curator’s Talk, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12, featuring Lauren Hayes, part of the team that conceived Black Refractions. Preceded by 5:30 p.m. reception.

Free Community Day, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sept. 14, KIA. Celebrating the exhibitions’ openings with free admission to the KIA, storytelling, art-making projects led by artists Brent Harris, James C. Palmore and Al Harris Jr. and performances by Tanisha Pyron.

Spiral Up and Out, Sept. 4-Oct. 13, Richmond Center for the Arts, Western Michigan University. An exhibition featuring works by the African-American artists’ collective Spiral, which was formed in the 1960s.

Ahead of the Curve: Sculptures from the KIA, Sept. 6-27, Arcus Gallery, Center for New Media, Kalamazoo Valley Community College downtown campus. An exhibition of sculptures from the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts from 1995-present, featuring Kalamazoo sculptor Al La Vergne and others.

Opening Day After-Party, 9 p.m.–midnight Sept. 14, Jolliffe Theatre, Epic Center, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall. Live music, food and drinks, $10, or free for members of the KIA, the Black Arts and Cultural Center and/or the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.

Local Artists in Action, September-November, Kalamazoo Public Library and its branches. A local artist will be featured at each library location creating a new artwork on-site throughout the week. Patrons can interact with the artists, create art in the style of the artists and participate in a special program facilitated by each artist. Participating artists are Darien Burress, James C. Palmore, Tanisha Pyron, Al Harris Jr. and Audrey Mills. See blackrefractionskalamazoo.org for a schedule and more information.

Filling in the Gaps: The Art of Murphy Darden, Oct. 12–April 5, Kalamazoo Valley Museum. An exhibit featuring black cowboys, Darden’s personal experiences in Mississippi, civil rights heroes, and the African American community in Kalamazoo.

Quilt Exhibition, opening 5-8 p.m. Nov. 1 and continuing through November, Black Arts & Cultural Center, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall. Michigan-made quilts that tell a story about black culture and history.

eLLe, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14-16, 2 p.m. Nov. 17, Judy Jolliffe Theatre, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, $8-$20. The Black Arts & Cultural Center’s Face Off Theatre Company, in collaboration with Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, presents the episodic dramedy about Kalamazoo-based characters from the LGBTQ community.

Where We Stand: Black Artists in Southwest Michigan, documentary film premiere, Nov. 14, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, 5:30 p.m. reception followed by a screening of the film at 6:30 p.m. The artists and filmmaker will be on hand for questions after the film.

Ibram X. Kendi, 4 p.m. Nov. 15, hosted by Western Michigan University Center for the Humanities, location to be announced. The author of The Black Campus Movement, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and the new book How to Be An Antiracist: A Memoir of My Journey will speak.

Gem of the Ocean, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15, 16, 21-23 and 2 p.m. Nov. 24, Shaw Theatre, WMU. University Theatre will perform the first installment of August Wilson's decade-by-decade, 10-play chronicle, The Pittsburgh Cycle, dramatizing the African-American experience in the 20th century.

Marie Lee also contributed to this article.