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Cultural pride and vibrant communities gave rise to the coinage of Chocolate City in D.C. in the ’70s. In the face of a constantly gentrifying area, many have been forced to move out of the communities they built, but the soul of what Chocolate City stood for can never be plowed over. In its seventh year, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center presents Chocolate Cities: The History, Legacy, & Sustainability of African American Urban Enclaves, which focuses specifically on D.C. and Prince George’s County. It is an art exhibit, curated by Martina Dodd, that highlights the artistic exploration of history and social justice and features artists Tim Davis, Lloyd Foster, Lionel Frazier White III, Sheila Crider, Michael Booker, and Larry Cook.
The museum is a modest space that houses a rich experience. It lives along the stretch of Rhode Island Avenue that changes from D.C. to Maryland in a tan building that you would miss if you weren’t looking for it. Look for it.
In the era of fitting experiences into a square for the perfect photo opportunity to share on social media, Chocolate Cities makes you want to do the opposite. The work selected can, for the most part, fit along a wall or in a frame. It doesn’t make you want to pull out your phone and take a selfie—not because it isn’t worthy, but because it demands your full attention.
Larry Cook’s “Thomas” is a photograph of a man and a child. They are not smiling or posing for a photo; they exist as they are. Cook’s work is in the same stream of consciousness as millions of photos we scan each day on the internet. But the difference is “Thomas” allows you to observe the life of a real person in a space that challenges you to think about someone other than yourself. Could Thomas be your cousin, brother, lover? Or, perhaps, he is your neighbor that you ignore? Whichever the case, he exists.
Lloyd Foster’s untitled photographs of men playing a game of chess are more direct. The black-and-white photographs are not a mystery, but they do portray a quiet wisdom: The men are older and contemplative, and the beauty of the photos lies in the moments caught. It is not a novel idea, but it does force us to stop and thoughtfully consume.
Tim Davis’ “I Am Still Waiting,” “Why Are You Waiting,” “When I Grow Up,” and “Go-Go” are mixed media collages that dig into the psyche. The faces in the paintings have no features, and if the whole face isn’t colored in, the eyes are blocked out by a strip of black. Davis’ seamless combination of paint and cut-out paper with very specific objects adds to the complexity of the stories being told.
Michael Booker’s “Chocolate City Park II,” an interactive piece, sits quietly on a shelf. It is made up of an old radio and a frame sitting on delicate fabric. There are headphones that hang beneath the shelf, in which a powerful voice recites a speech: “We aren’t going to tolerate any violence…” it continues on a loop. The speech coming from the headphones transforms the physical parts of the work; it is no longer just a silent shelf of objects but rather a vehicle for change.
Sheila Crider’s “Walk in the Park: Apartment Living” is fun and colorful, reminiscent of children’s artwork. Seven paintings form a neighborhood of apartment dwellers anchored by a polyester sculpture of two towers, coming together to tell the story of a community.
Crider continues the apartment theme in “The Black Army,” an encased sculpture of 18 structures aligned like soldiers—in all black. Quite a juxtaposition with her previous colorful, playful view. The title plays a large role in how we view the sculpture, suggesting that the sculptures may not be buildings at all, but a community changed.
Meanwhile, Lionel Frazier White III tugs on our heartstrings with “Porch Girl,” a video of still photographs of his mother. Lionel’s mother starts as a young girl sitting on a D.C. stoop and is later shown graduating as an adult. Each photo becomes a moving story as the people in the photos transform into dark shapes. It is a simple xerox machine blackout process that tells a powerful story. We see not only the good memories of lives lived, but also become bystanders as those same lives are taken. It is a powerful video that brings the entire exhibit together.
In a rapidly changing D.C., Chocolate Cities is a rich journey that is thoughtfully curated by Dodd. It’s an exhibition that connects D.C.’s past with its present; and in that, it demands to be experienced by present humans.
4519 Rhode Island Ave. Free. (301) 403-1382. pgaamcc.org.