Reflections in Black' Captures Racial History on Film

The photography of several contemporary African-American artists is on display in UB's Center for the Arts as part of the "Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography, A History Deconstructed," exhibit. The display depicts the trials and tribulations that blacks faced in the 20th century and continue to struggle with today.

During the past two decades, black artists have used their work to help tear down and redefine the rigid concepts of race and gender. Using the photographic image by looking at it as document and metaphor, these artists have deconstructed and rebuilt their personal histories and public personas. The symbolic and expressive imagery of the works produced during this time offer a different visual standard; a fresher look into the minds and thoughts of a people.

The portraits on display range from pictures of hairstyles to tattooed bodies and show a wide variety of artistry and innovation. Many pieces in "A History Deconstructed" jump out at you and provoke your innermost thoughts on how we live.

Walking through the gallery, you'll often wonder what the artist is trying to accomplish, either by using a certain color, focusing on a certain body part or through the placement of an object. You will also be amazed at how something so ordinary, innocent and normal can be depicted as something extraordinary, interesting and unusual.

Artist Albert Chong's "Trespass" and Chris Johnson's "Untitled Triptych" use images of a silhouette and a dark background to enhance the theme of the portraits - isolation with incorporation. The pieces offer a complex look into how people perceive themselves and how they deal with others.

Other artists such as Clarissa Sligh, Dawoud Bey and Don Camp offer portraits that stress the existence of everyday, ordinary people into art forms, frequently focusing on facial and body expressions, stance and the angle of view.

A large portrait on display by Donald Bernard is divided into squares revealing a symbol of greatness in a woman pouring a "libation," the act of pouring liquid on the earthen ground as an offering to a deity or greater being. The spaces between the squares are filled with words of encouragement, most likely a testimony, to all women. A very spiritually-oriented portrait, the last line in the testimony reads, "At the dawn of religion, God was a woman." The piece is as powerful as it is simple.

A few portraits in the exhibit tell a story in sequence. Carrie Mae Weems' "Not Manet's Type" illustrates five visually different but thematically similar photographs of women and their struggles with life, love and acceptance. The portraits seem to delve into a woman's psyche and provoke the entry of fantasy into reality, the past to the present, and outer normalcy to inner chaos. Weems' piece uses text and imagery in a flawless pairing to illustrate the constant struggle black women face.

A similar piece is Cynthia Wiggins' "Idle Hands," which takes a passionate look into three generations of a man's paternal line and the obstacles they faced as blue-collar workers. The display consists of six photos of a black male whose only visible features are his outwardly folded hands and the chest area of his beige-colored work uniform. Alternating photos describe the occupations of the family's grandfather, father and son. This piece, like Weems', illustrates simplicity in artistry, with a somewhat clearer message.

There are also some unusual photographs in the collections. Thomas Allan and Lyle Ashton Harris' "Alchemy Series: Procession" takes an interesting look at religious, mythological and ritual practices in a colorful and provocative light. One aspect that immediately draws the viewer are the two men sitting Indian-style looking at each other in the foreground and the two women in very close proximity to each other in the background. While these two instances might trigger a feeling of intimacy between the two parties in your mind, the portrait tells a deeper story.

These photographs break the cultural barrier to which Americans are accustomed with a hidden force and a fresher execution, rendering them intriguing and unique. They initiate reconsideration, allowing new questions to be asked and new values to be formed.

Black photographers have played a central role in influencing how African-Americans visualize themselves, and these portraits are now breaking free into a mainstream capacity.

The exhibit will be on display at the CFA until Dec. 7. Exhibit hours are from Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.