Beyond ‘Black Refractions’

KIA turns exhibition into community conversation

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.

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.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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