A Commitment to Honoring and Celebrating Black Life

University of Pittsburgh's Varsity Walk

University of Pittsburgh's Varsity Walk is where the upcoming outdoor exhibition, "Black Lives in Focus", will be held.


A Commitment to Honoring and Celebrating Black Life

Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Spring 2021

Last summer, we all had a lot of time to watch Black Lives Matter protests and the various positive and negative responses to them. I believe we all should look within ourselves and question what the BLM movement means to us, and how we can move forward towards gaining true equality in this country. With all of these feelings of anger and helplessness swirling inside during quarantine as I watched the events unfold from home, I was elated when I was offered a position to intern under Dr. Sylvia Rhor in the University Art Gallery to work on the upcoming exhibition, Black Lives in Focus.

Originally, the show was intended to be a vigil to honor the Black lives lost to police brutality. The idea was proposed by the University under the direction of our Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement, Dr. Kathy Humphrey, inspired by Lest We Forget (an outdoor exhibition which honored Holocaust survivors). Dr. Humphrey formed a large planning committee comprised of Pitt staff, faculty, and community members to shape the project, and named Dr. Bria Walker, Assistant Professor of Theatre Pedagogy, and Dr. Sylvia Rhor as lead co-organizers for the project. After many planning meetings, the project transformed from a single vigil to a large-scale initiative which includes the outdoor exhibition, multi-media visual artworks, text pieces, a performance, and opening ceremony to be held at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Together, all of these components are meant to honor the BLM movement and urge us to consider how systemic racism within our country affects our daily lives. In addition, this initiative was meant to highlight Pitt’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and to address the needs of the University’s Black students, staff and community – who have often felt unseen or unheard on campus. The idea for the exhibition developed even further once the Visual Arts Selection Committee began meeting and discussing the broader implications of just one show attempting to embody the totality of the Black experience within our personal, and national communities.

To date, my work has focused on the foundational aspects of the Visual Arts Selection Committee, of which I am a member. The Committee, made up of eight Black Pitt faculty, student, and two community members (curators), had the honor of deciding which works will be shown as part of the visual arts section of the exhibition. The committee carefully reviewed the many submissions received from an open call to artists and community. In the beginning of my internship, my work consisted of making word documents containing the submissions of each artist (with the help of Mari Carmen Barrios), making a Power Point presentation with the submissions and tombstone information of each submission, listing my favorite and least favorite submissions for the exhibition, and providing a rationale for my selection based on the submission call criteria. I have worked closely with my fellow Committee members to select which works we feel truly represent the essence of Black life in America today. Over the course of our selection, we realized the original intent of only having just one show no longer fit our vision, and the stress of just honoring lives lost seemed inadequate and a one-sided view of Black life. We wished to honor the Black experience, and to do that we need not only to focus on issues surrounding the BLM movement, but the bigger picture of systemic racism as well as the positives to Black life, which certainly cannot be completed in just one exhibition. For this exhibition, we selected 20 works that highlight a range of Black experiences that will be reproduced on the lawn of the Cathedral in September 2021. We also proposed that this exhibition be seen as the first of other exhibitions – both indoor and outdoor – that explore Black life.

Overall, I am grateful to be a part of a majority Black Committee for this exhibition. Throughout my entire career as a student at Pitt, I have had only two Black professors (both male), which is frustrating to me because Pitt has emphatically preached diversity and inclusion without significant follow through time and time again. This Committee feels like a breath of fresh air because there is a mix of queer and straight Black women, men, and non-binary folks of different ages working together which brings a more holistic view of the Black experience for the exhibition. There are many facets to Black life within America today, and with the diversity of our Committee and the magnificent submissions of the artists in the show, we have the great opportunity of beginning an open and honest dialogue within our community. As a result of our Committee’s meetings, Pitt and the UAG are broadening our discussion of Black life in our personal and national communities to a series of Black Lives in Focus exhibitions, and to other areas on campus, most notably with incorporation into the University’s curriculum.

I could not be prouder of the work we have all done and how far the show has come in such a short time. I am very grateful for my experience during this internship, and I am so excited to take what I have learned and apply these lessons later on in my career working on decolonization practices within exhibition settings.

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