Black artists respond to legacy of slavery in ‘Past is Present’

INDIANAPOLIS – International, national and local Black artists have responded to the complicated legacy of slavery and the continued progress toward freedom in a new exhibition at the Herron School of Art + Design.

Past is Present: Black Artists Respond to the Complicated Histories of Slavery features 200 artworks – including 10 historical objects from the mid-19th and 20th centuries that focus on the stories of enslaved people and their descendants – in a variety of media three different rooms inside Herron. The artworks include prints, paintings, ceramics, mixed media installations, sculptures, textiles and digital projections.

dr Jonathan Michael Square, fashion historian and curator of Afro-diasporic arts, curated Past is Present.

In exploring contemporary issues surrounding race, power, and inequality, a fundamental principle of Past is Present was to “resist simple narratives about African-American history,” said Dr. Square.

“Pun intended: Black history or African American history is often seen in black and white. There is a kind of simple teleology from enslavement to freedom. And indeed, this progression from enslavement to freedom has been quite faltering. And some people would argue that we’re still in the process of achieving freedom,” said Dr. Square. “That’s what this exhibition examines — how artists are responding to the complicated history of uneasy, faltering progress toward freedom. “

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WRTV Photo: Shakkira Harris


WRTV Photo: Shakkira Harris

“This exhibition is very personal,” said Dr. Square, a Louisiana native, told WRTV on the show’s first full opening day. dr Square lives in New York City and is an Assistant Professor of Black Visual Culture at Parsons School of Design. “I’m someone who uses fashion and textiles as a lens to look at stories and people who are descendants, so a lot of the work is about fashion or textiles [in Past is Present].”

In the past year and a half, Dr. Square worked on the exhibit, flying back and forth from New York City to Indianapolis and doing Zoom calls. Each part of the exhibition not only has a point that matches the showcase, but also has its own story.

“People take fashion for granted. She’s so everyday. It’s like food, art, sports; it’s just part of everyday life. And so people kind of don’t put them on the same level as, say, philosophy, politics, or the law,” said Dr. Square. “But there’s a lot of important information embedded in the clothes we wear.”

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For example, the textile negro cloth, said Dr. Square.

“It’s a textile made specifically for enslaved humans. And this is another example of how fashion and textiles can tell us important stories about the history of slavery in the United States.”


WRTV Photo: Shakkira Harris

In the past year and a half, Dr. Jonathan Michael Square worked on the Past is Present exhibit, flying back and forth between New York City and Indianapolis, and doing Zoom calls.

WRTV Photo: Shakkira Harris

To say that the Past is Present exhibition is powerful would be an understatement.

It intriguingly raises and raises complex questions, challenging the status quo of what the general public thinks about when they think of Black America’s history, slavery and freedom.

To raise these questions, it was Dr. Square important to not only bringing new names to the city, but also putting the city’s artists front and center and making it clear to viewers that Indianapolis and its history are embedded in a larger, global conversation.

“One thing I hope viewers will take away from is the relationship between local history in national and international history,” said Dr. Square. “I found it really important to have a lineup of Indianapolis-based artists who talk about their own personal history and dynamics in Indianapolis, but also bring those artists up for conversation with artists who are based elsewhere in Indiana, in the United States or at times.” international.”

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Artists featured in the show are Mason Archie, Kaila Austin, Torry Brown, Willie Cole, Matthew Cooper, Sonya Clark, Walter Lobyn Hamilton, John Wesley Hardrick, Alicia Henry, Samuel Levi Jones, Roberto Lugo, Marcus Morris, Nell Painter and Rae Parker, Carl Pope, Martin Puryear, Rebecca Robinson, Mary Sibande, Lorna Simpson, LaShawnda Crowe Storm, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, John Wilson, and Shamira Wilson.

About the artists writes Dr. Square said in a statement for the exhibition that they “are deeply engaged in using their creative practices as tools for liberation, raising important questions about slavery’s past and present, and envisioning a path forward.”


WRTV Photo: Shakkira Harris

Visit to learn more about Dr. Square and the book he is writing about Negro fabric called Negro Cloth: How Slavery Birthed the American Fashion Industry. Those interested in watching “Past is Present” can see it through January 14 at Herron’s at 735 W. New York St. The opening hours of the gallery during the fall semester are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Wednesday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition is free.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.

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