“To Be Free: Women of the Afrofuture” is a captivating exhibit

Kenlontae’ Turner’s exhibit showcases the artistic essence in black womanhood

“… to further illuminate the power, intellect, spirituality, creativity and magic embedded within black womanhood.” This is the goal of the Falk Gallery’s latest exhibit. “To Be Free: Women of the Afrofuture” is an exhibit featuring the artwork of ArtCNU alumnus Kenlontae’ Turner. It consists of a series of portraits, done in charcoal and pastels, but brought to life with embellishments. Some feature bold, bright explosions of colored tissue paper, while others feature more subtle additions of glimmering gold, copper or silver leaf.

There is one portrait, however, which is only charcoal and pastel. Titled “She Doesn’t Come in Peace,” the woman pictured stares directly at the viewer, her gaze intense and inscrutable. Her eyes seem to follow the viewer across the room with a powerful gaze that is never changing. The woman wears traditional neck rings that were used in some African cultures to create the illusion of a longer neck. Like several of the other portraits, her pitch-black hair is adorned with stars and constellations. The main constellation depicted is the zodiac constellation of Leo, typically associated with strength, pride and royalty and one of the three fire signs in the zodiac. 

Her portrait is placed slightly overlapping with another, called “The High Priestess.” The woman pictured here glares out at the viewer with her fierce, almost accusatory stare seeming to bore right into the viewers very soul. Unlike the majority of her counterparts, there are no delicate stars to brighten her hair or clothes, but rather she wears a dress of black, the color as solid and unwavering as her glare. Upon her head rests a headdress of sorts, a solid dome of silver leaf with bright blue spikes emerging from it. Like her, it is both beautiful and threatening, lovely and dangerous.

However, not all of the portraits are quite so aggressive. One portrait, entitled simply “Mama,” depicts an older woman looking off into the distance. Emotion is etched into every line of her face, a mix of hope, longing, happiness and love. Aside from the intricate details of her face, the rest of the portrait is made of entirely tissue paper. She wears a head scarf covering in various hues of red and a broad swath of bright red tissue paper that serves to cover her shoulders. Positioned directly above her portrait is one of several adinkra, which are symbols that represent thoughts or concepts. The one that rests above “Mama” is called “Odo Nnyew Fie Kwan,” which means “love never loses its way home.” It is meant to represent the power of love, and the choice to place it above this portrait is clearly deliberate. The woman in the portrait seems as though she is looking toward home, and the love and joy she feels is clearly visible in her eyes. 

Another one of the more joyful portraits is called “Nina’s Smile.” The woman depicted grins widely towards the viewer, and the simple sweetness on her face is enough to make any observer grin right back. The focus of the painting is kept on that lovely smile, the only embellishments being stripes of silver leaf through her short hair. 

While the actual sketching of the portraits is masterful, what really makes the exhibit so striking is the use of texture and color. The leaf at first glance might not appear to add a great deal of texture of dimension, but the longer one looks, the more the texture becomes apparent. The leaf is not completely flat, and if you look close enough, you can even see it fluttering due to the air conditioning. The bold, bright tissue paper leaps off the canvas, often quite literally. It is not pressed flat but rather allowed to burst forth, wild and untamed. 

In some cases, the tissue paper has been rolled tightly into miniscule balls, and many of these paper balls placed very close together. This method gives the illusion of a solid object, when in reality there are many small pieces, which serves to add the textured look and feel. Others will have tissue paper rolled into long, thin strands, which are then used to accent the portraits. One portrait has hair made entirely of these strands, weaved with different shades of blue and green overlapping and coming together in perfect harmony. 

The three-dimensional feel is even enhanced by the way the artwork is displayed. Some portraits are placed overlapping with one another, rather than standing alone. The portraits are hung so that they are not directly against the wall. The lighting causes shadows to be cast on the wall behind the portraits, and the tissue paper causes these shadows to have fascinating shapes.

In addition to the portraits, there are several small squares with adinkra painted on them. The adinkra represents diverse symbolic attributes such as hope, leadership or bravery, and their placement near certain portraits, which offers additional meaning to them. It is easy to overlook the adinkra or think of them as just a nice design, but each one has a deep significance which greatly enhances one’s understanding of the artwork. 

This exhibit will be at the Falk Gallery in the Ferguson Center for the Arts until Oct. 25, and there will be an artist talk and reception on Oct. 26. I would highly recommend visiting this wonderful exhibit to everyone, even those who don’t necessarily enjoy art. Not only is the artwork beautiful, but the emotion poured into each piece can be felt. You don’t need knowledge or art history to be struck the depths of feeling these pieces evoke.

~Peri Costic, Staff Writer~

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