UAlbany exhibit explores racial struggles

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A review by Tim Kaine for the Times Union.

Stars and bars explode, disintegrate and merge as dollar signs and other symbols of pop culture. Then it all vanishes, only to return as a spinning circle spawning a lattice-like configuration suggesting a fence, or a prison.

With a soulful R&B melody as a backdrop, the screen morphs again into what looks like the Confederate flag. But something isn’t quite right. The colors are not red and blue, but green, red and black. It’s not what you think it is. Or is it? It’s there one moment; gone the next.

The one-screen installation “Black Righteous Space” at the University at Albany’s University Art Museum is a barrage of symbols with more than 50 samples of African-American music, poetry and speeches spliced together that lap over you like waves, sparking a range of emotions — joy, hope, confusion, anger and dissent.

An infectious groove from “Modern Day Slavery” by hip-hop master Immortal Technique gives way to an ardent speech by Black Panther Bobby Seale. A cut from Sam Dees segues to a wicked roll by jazz drummer Max Roach as image and sound vibrate in unison. There’s Malcom X, Michelle Obama, Tupac, Angela Davis and Maya Angelou.

If you go

What: ”Black Righteous Space”

When: Through April 7

Where: University Art Museum, University at Albany, 140 Washington Ave., Albany

Cost: Free

Hours: Tuesday 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday Noon-4 p.m.

As the beat intensifies, the flag reappears more clearly, exhibiting all its power as a symbol of white supremacy amid all of the fragmented black history. The colors of black liberation adorn it, turning any preconceived notions upside down and inside out.

Created by 33-year-old Hank Willis Thomas, who is already considered an important voice of his generation as he tackles black identity and visual culture head on, the exhibit’s greatest attribute may be the “hot” microphone placed squarely in the middle of the exhibit.

At the sound of a gong you can add what you want to the debate and become a “disruptor” interjecting into the ongoing dialogue. We recently had our own conversation with Thomas over the phone and subsequent emails about the installation and other things.

Q: First off, how did ”Black Righteous Space” all come together? Was it driven by the Confederate flag, the music or a particular speech?

A: This project was a born out of a desire to graphically visualize the mesmerizing audacity and courage of Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans who used their voices audaciously to challenge multiple forms of injustice in North America.

Q: The music really binds the installation together, adding a sense of the collective memory amid individual voices. How did you go about choosing that aspect of the exhibit?

A: I think the moments of silence are equally important. I was actually first compelled by speeches I heard by people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. I soon noted the melodic cadence in their speech. This led me to music with the same voracity.

Q: Like this installation, your work is often about simple images, or symbols, that have complex meanings aimed at exploitation of one group or another. What is branding to you?

A: Branding is a language. A shorthand for ideas to be communicated across language and cultural boundaries. It can say so much with so little, a few colors and a simple design can move armies, economies and literally mountains.

Q: By appropriating the stars and bars with the colors of the black liberation movement you seem to suggesting black separatism and even nationalism. Are you?

A: Like notions of freedom and liberation those colors mean many colors to many people. It is important to consider that black nationalism was born in the era of Jim Crow, colonialism and genocide. In other words, it was an idea tied to dreams of liberation. I believe Marcus Garvey described the color reason as “Red is the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the color of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.”

Q: What do you think is the state of the African-American consciousness right now?

A: It has always been expansive, diverse and eclectic, there have always been various African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities, often in conversation and solidarity with Pan-African diasporic struggles for human rights, freedom and equality. I think it is critical to acknowledge that African-Americans aren’t even the largest population of African-descended people in the Americas. In other words, the consciousness could never accurately be consolidated or explained in universal term. Blackness is powerful, deep and infinite. According to Wikipedia “A black hole is a region of space time exhibiting such strong gravitational effects that nothing—not even particles and electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape from inside it.”

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