Black art and resilience celebrated in downtown OKC with 'Still Here' exhibit
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Eclectic art exhibit celebrates Black resilience at Myriad Gardens' Crystal Bridge gallery
Whether she is painting on canvas or handcrafting one of her new embroidery portraits, Suzanne Thomas prefers to work in layers.
"I love the idea of layering ... of blending together, putting things on top of this and that, and you create a picture, layering so there's a structure to it. It's a foundation, so it feels like everybody's building on everything. It helps create the whole picture, but on the other hand, it also draws the viewer in," Thomas said. "It helps to create a visual interest. It's not just interested in telling the narrative, but to draw people in to really look at it."
Inspired by memories of her grandmother and great-aunt, who adorned the tops of coffee tables and the backs of sofas with delicate doilies, the Oklahoma City artist's embroidery and lace works are a new way of presenting the historical images of beautiful Black women she has depicted throughout her career.
"There was something very refined about (those doilies), in my opinion. They're so delicate. So, I love linens and I love lace, and I just love the idea of these spiral intricate stitch works. And I'm one of those people who's like, 'I can do something with that.' ... So, I just plopped down and looked at a couple of YouTube videos, and I taught myself needle tatting," which is a form of lace making, Thomas said.
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- Video: 'Still Here': Eclectic art exhibit celebrates Black resilience
"Whatever my work is, when I'm painting or this, I think anyone will say that my main imagery is Black women. It's always going to be Black women, but always these Black women of great beauty and great strength, just because that's the only way I know Black women - and I say that as a Black woman who was raised by Black women."
Thomas is among about a dozen Black artists featured in the new interdisciplinary art exhibition "Still Here: The Cosmology of Black Resilience," on view through March 2 in the Myriad Botanical Gardens' Crystal Bridge Conservatory.
"Cosmology, I would say you can think of it like a blueprint, so like the blueprint for resilience. So, in each of these pieces, you see stories. You may look at it for a second, and you just see something beautiful. But then, you sit in front of it and take it in, and you see, there's a lot of information that the artist is trying to share with you. ... Everyone has their own unique spin on what Black resilience means to them," said Ebony Iman Dallas, one of the artists in and curators for the exhibit.
Visual and performance art
On view in the Visitor Center Lobby of the Crystal Bridge, "Still Here" was organized by two Black cultural organizations - Dallas' Afrikanation Artists Organization and Marie Casimir's Djaspora Productions - that are working to connect people through the arts. The idea for the exhibit developed last summer after the death of George Floyd while in police custody sparked nationwide protests about racial equality.
"(Ebony) had been offered this show at Myriad Gardens and really was seeking to bring somebody else into the process. ... It was COVID time, so we were hanging out in the driveway and decided it would just be a beautiful collaboration, not only between us, but to bring other Black artists into the process," Casimir said.
"The 'Still Here' title just came from talking about what was going on in the world, the pandemic, as well as the uprisings and the unrest. We just looked at each other and said, 'You know what, we are still here.' Regardless of what's happening in the world, we are still here, and as Black people, we continue to be resilient and we continue to show up for each other. So, that then spawned the concept of 'how do we look at the ways and the stories that we tell about ourselves, to learn ourselves, who we are as people.' So, that's the idea of the cosmology: the order, the myths and the stories we tell about ourselves as people to understand who we are."
As a dancer, Casimir wanted "Still Here" to showcase both visual and performing artists. OKC hip-hop artist and dancer Changing FrEQuencies performed at the virtual exhibit opening, and "Storytelling in the Gardens" at 1 p.m. Saturday on the Myriad Gardens Water Stage will feature readings by poets, storytellers and artists, including Dallas, Casimir, Tony Brinkley, Grace Franklin, Catherine John and Gay Pasley. The in-person event will be free and open to the public but also live-streamed.
"Opportunities are less for performing artists right now. We can't gather in space with people and that just felt like it was missing. And so then how do we not only like create space for artists to make work, but also pay how like, make sure we're paying performers, because that's lacking," Casimir said. "We just wanted to make sure we can engage with each other as artists and keep each other working, frankly, and then engage with the public."
Also as part of the exhibit, a virtual screening is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday of "We Remember, We Restore," a dance film choreographed and performed by Casimir and J'aime Griffith in the Crystal Bridge.
"It's always been a dream of mine to create here. This is one of my favorite places in the city, and I come here, like when I just need some respite. ... So, we've been coming in and rehearsing and people have been watching us rehearse in the space and creating work every week," Casimir said. "I think people are gonna feel the way we felt making it, which is a sense of peace, a sense of joy, a sense of release."
The visual artworks in the exhibit range from Pasley's striking black-and-white photographs and Ronna Pernell's intricate pen-and-ink drawings to Amena Butler's vibrant mixed-media works and Dallas' colorful acrylic portraits that incorporate African textiles, gold leafing and woodcuts.
"Myriad Gardens loves showcasing local talent in our rotating art exhibits at the Crystal Bridge Visitor Lobby. This show combines artistry with an inspirational message of resilience that resonates loudly especially in these times," said Myriad Gardens Foundation President and CEO Maureen Heffernan in an email.
The exhibit also includes vivid murals created by five artists of color ranging in age from 18 to 25. The artists - Anthony Brock, Jasmine Jones, Shakurah Maynard, Jessie Kay Shelton and Verdean Thompson - created the murals for the downtown Oklahoma City Opening Night New Year's Eve celebration through a program called FRESH PAINT: OKC NYE. A partnership between the OKC Thunder and Arts Council Oklahoma City, FRESH PAINT gave the aspiring artists the chance to be mentored by Dallas and fellow local professional muralist Dylan Bradway.
"That was a fun project to be a part of. ... Everyone has their own unique spin on what Black resilience means to them," Dallas said. "Art is accessible. You can basically share a lot of information very quickly with a wide audience. Not everyone is at the protests, not everyone is ready to listen sometimes to what the stories are behind the protests. So, art, it's an invitation. It's very welcoming. It's like, 'Hey, come on in, and sit with us and try to understand where we're coming from.' And we can start to have a conversation."
For Thomas, that conversation will incorporate her lifelong love of fashion design, her affinity of vintage images of Black women and her memories of her grandmother's lacy doilies.
"I think resiliency is beauty and strength," Thomas said. "We've always been beautiful, we've always had a glamorous edge, a style, we've just always been there. ... And we're still here, and we ain't going nowhere. Let that go - ain't going nowhere. So, here we are. And we're just going to get better as we keep going on."
"Still Here: The Cosmology of Black Resilience"
When: Through March 2.
Where: Myriad Gardens' Crystal Bridge Conservatory Visitor Center Lobby, 301 W Reno.
Admission: Free during lobby hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
"We Remember, We Restore" virtual film screening: 6:30 p.m. Friday.
"Storytelling in the Gardens": 1 p.m. Saturday on the Water Stage or online.
Streaming and information: www.facebook.com/AAOUSA and www.facebook.com/djasporaproductions.
Features Writer Brandy "BAM" McDonnell covers Oklahoma's arts, entertainment and cultural sectors for The Oklahoman and Oklahoman.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/brandybammcdonnell and twitter.com/BAMOK. Please support work by her and her colleagues by subscribing at oklahoman.com/subscribe.