RISD’s first-ever Black Biennial kicked off on Friday evening with a musical celebration on Moore Terrace, outside the Chace Center. The groundbreaking show—on view in the Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery through April 10—features work by RISD students, staff and alumni as well as select pieces by other Black artists and designers from the Providence area.
“The show is all about building community,” says co-curator Rey Londres 22 PH, “not just among RISD students, but with other Black artists in the area as well. Having all of these conversations in the same space has been really pivotal.”
When Londres proposed the exhibition last year, they were surprised by how much immediate support they got from college faculty and administration. They have been following RISD’s evolving stance on race, racism and social equity with cautious optimism and participated in a powerful student-led presentation to administrators about the Black experience at RISD.
“I was part of the RISD and Race Forum back in 2020 and have been thinking a lot about how activism and community-building work on this campus,” says Londres. “That experience started the engine for this show, and RISD’s new vision for the future really supports it.”
Last fall, newly hired Schiller Family Assistant Professor in Race in Art and Design Shiraz Gallab came on board as faculty advisor along with Design Leads Zoë Pulley MFA 23 GD (whom Londres describes as “everything I could ever wish for in a collaborator”) and Jada Akoto 22 GD. Londres met the other pivotal member of the curatorial team, co-curator and Brown University grad student Melaine Ferdinand-King, back in 2019 through their growing network of Black creatives that began with their discovery of the Black Artists and Designers (BAAD) club.
“Our biggest challenge was crafting a story that is cohesive but also represents the diversity and variety of the Black experience,” says Ferdinand-King. “We have work by 17-year-old artists completed just last week alongside work by artists in their 70s made in the 1970s! Rey and I worked together to tease out the many different threads this fabric is made of.”
The arresting Bear Witness (acrylic paint, marker and spray paint on canvas, 108 x 83") by 70-something painter Bob Dilworth 73 PT, for example, draws visitors into the gallery and is juxtaposed against another large-scale painting, Family, by first-year student Amadi Williams 25 EFS. “Amadi has an incredible website called Meaningful Voices, and we were so impressed by all of her work,” Londres notes.
Another gallery wall is anchored by Oculus (hair, embodied knowledge, ancestral recall, audacity of survival and bobby pins, 8' diameter, 8" deep), a stunning woven installation by alum Nafis M. White 15 SC/MFA 18 PR, whose recent work draws inspiration from the experiences and traditions of Black beauty and self-care “passed through the generations by the fingertips of Black people.”
Around the corner, grad student Addie Kae Mingliton MFA 23 PT is showing a painting called Welcomes Her (acrylic on canvas, 60 x 84 x1.25") for the very first time. The piece is the last in her Mulatto series chronicling the life and death of her great-grandmother.
The exhibition also features apparel, sculpture, photographs, textiles, silkscreens and even high-concept athletic shoes by recent alum Dorian Epps 21 ID. “It was one thing to see all of these beautiful pieces on screen,” Akoto notes, “but to see such amazing Black art fill white museum walls has made us all collectively step back and say, ‘whoa.’ The energy in the Gelman Gallery is something I’ve never experienced before.”
Ill Na Na’s Revenge (Jacquard woven, glass seed beads, 8 x 6'), another timely alumni contribution, comes from Qualeasha Wood 19 PR, whose Internet-inspired tapestries are currently garnering a lot of attention in NYC. “Qualeasha’s [2018 student show] Criteria of Beauty was in many ways the beginning of the idea for this show,” says Londres, “so we’re really excited to bring her work back into the gallery.”
For Londres, who is graduating this June and hoping to include curatorial work in their post-RISD practice, a key takeaway from this experience is how to leverage the power of community to navigate within established institutions and make space for the marginalized. “No idea is too outlandish,” they say. “If it’s a good idea, the right people will support it and help you make it a reality. The way this show came together really gives me hope for the future.”
—Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH