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Originating from the Akan people of Ghana, the term Sankofa is often associated with the proverb “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” meaning “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” The Adinkra symbol for the concept is a mythical bird flying forward with its head turned backward. In the exhibition Shoulder the Deed at Eckington gallery STABLE, the curators have gone back and fetched a history that strengthens the establishment not only of STABLE, but also of the Black artists living and working in D.C. STABLE, in collaboration with the Black Artists of D.C., presents an impressive collection of artworks steeped in rich African and African American traditions. As you enter the space, the wall to the right features photographs of some key personages such as Harlee Little and Juliette Madison, who, beginning in 1985, envisioned a space where Black photographers could commiserate and work. Shoulder the Deed is a spiritual reckoning. The artists in the exhibition, spanning several generations, come together to travel through time to bring forth conceptual and even modern works that speak to Black experience through portraiture, video art, assemblage, and more.
Before seeing the artwork, Black presence is felt and sets the tone for the exhibition. Upon entering the gallery, the sounds from Shaunté Gates’ video work “Free Breakfast Program” hauntingly quiets the mind. The repetitive loop of phrases such as “By their very presence…” and “I was always here …” over a go-go rhythm signals that we are in Black space, if the artworks had not already signaled this. The sound draws you to the work full of edited and manipulated images, displaying a history of the Black experience. The archival historical footage is juxtaposed with more recent archival footage as Black people perform traditional African dance and B-boys break.
While Gates’ work references relatively recent history using media technology, Gina Marie Lewis confronts history with an ancestral altar. “Libations for the Journey” is a mixed media work that uses images, cowrie shells, bottle corks, seashells, champagne, and door handles to offer the ancestors access and vision on a journey. A wooden box depicting a slightly open door sits in the middle of the altar as a doorway to the past, with candles inside to light the way in the darkness. This generous offering to the ancestors allows the artist to look to the past to create a path to the future spiritually. Lewis uses traditional technology to reach back in time to secure the blessings of the ancestors on a journey forward.
In keeping with the theme of looking at the past, Stan Squirewell’s “Monk Hancock (Innocent Criminal Series)” combines ancient times with the present in a portrait that is a mashup of a modern-day Black man dressed in a black winter coat manipulated with an overlay of the facade of an Egyptian statue and the bodice of a Roman one. Looking back to notable periods in history, Squirewell tells a contemporary story about the fight for survival. The portrait allows for a connection between how a contemporary Black man must fight for his life, much like those who have gone before in other treacherous times.
Nekisha Durrett’s “Magnolias” says the names of women whose lives were lost too soon. In a light box, the names of three women are highlighted on magnolia leaves. These unarmed women were killed by police, referencing the threat unarmed Black women face in their everyday existences. The stories of these women’s deaths are all too common today, but by saying their names, Durrett remembers them and encapsulates their circumstance for others to know and remember their fates.
The artworks in the exhibition work together; Michael Platt’s “Evening Ritual,” a painting of a nude Black woman depicted eight times and composed in a circle, alludes to the “magic” that Black women have been known to perform for centuries. The subject of the painting looks directly at the viewer from many angles as we witness her in ritual. The idea reminds viewers of the spectatorship Black people have gone through as the “other.” The defiance in the subject’s response shows she is not threatened by the gaze of the viewer.
In several ways, the artworks speak of the present while at the same time referring to the past. From modernist tendencies to conceptual leanings, the show represents an array of works that belong in the same exhibition space but are each unique in their perspective. As a continuation of STABLE’s relationship with Black artists for almost four decades, this exhibition represents the importance of looking back to the foundation for clues on the direction to take next. Each of the artworks in Shoulder the Deed has a distinct quality that makes visitors want to see more from the artists. The artwork in this exhibition looks at the past while representing the contemporary moment, moving us into a more conscious future.
At STABLE to Sept. 30. 336 Randolph Place NE. (202) 953-9559. stablearts.org.
This story has been updated to clarify Little and Madison’s connection to STABLE.