“Holding on to me,” by Redeat Wondemu; 2020, Nikon 750D, Platinum Palladium on archival Hahnemühle's Photo Rag paper 17x21

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Coffee: A Color Study is a quaint exhibition at Studio Gallery DC that gives Black women artists—professionals and hobbyists—the opportunity to meditate on the safety and stability that exists within the color brown. Associated with grounding, the featured artists spent time contemplating formal and abstract notions of brown objects both manmade and natural. 

The artworks feature important facets of Black womanhood such as hair and skin tone, but the art also allows us to see the ability these artists demonstrate. Though the skill level of the artworks varies from highly technical to frankly spontaneous, they work well together as a study on the color brown by offering a range of media.

In art, a color study is a small painting that focuses on color arrangement. But this one isn’t quite as formal as it is theoretical. The artists aren’t solely using brown in their artworks, but they’re honing in on how brown elements in the pieces—skin tone, hair, the earth, coffee—exist naturally. The exhibition includes photography, painting, weaving, and animation to create a conversation surrounding the many interpretations of the ways in which the color shows up in our daily lives. But the different perspectives allow viewers to see clearly that Black women are not a monolith. The show features more than one artwork focused on hair, others offer a study on skin color. With brown as the theme, it’s not surprising that Black women would create art about hair and skin color and their interpretations would be spot-on. But, surprisingly, a painting of a canister of hair relaxer was a bit obscure, as it is rendered on the canvas without being brown or alluding to something that is necessarily brown. 

As they enter the exhibition space, viewers are welcomed by three paintings by Munirah Smith-Gray that achieve an adequate level of mastery. They raise the bar for the rest of the exhibition. Reflecting the beauty of the subjects’ brown skin tones, Smith-Gray offers the viewer two portraits—“Warmth” and “Chill”—that show formal skill. Existing somewhere between photorealism and animation, these portraits stand out for both imagination and artistic proficiency. It isn’t clear whether these portraits were of actual sitters or figments of the artist’s imagination. But the technique used to render them leaves viewers questioning.

Another highlight are the tapestries by Ruth Fikeru, who started weaving as a hobby during the pandemic. In some ways, she takes the theme literally—the tapestries are brown—but they are formally abstract. Her works on view are passion projects that take time to create (weaving one square inch takes about 15 minutes). These four beautifully woven tapestries exist within the scope of the color scheme and anchor the exhibition with the level of skill and aesthetic proficiency.

Stationed near the back of the gallery space, Redeat Wondemu stood brewing Ethiopian coffee on Jan. 7, the day Ethiopians celebrate Christmas. (In Ethiopia, coffee plays a major role in society; sharing it is a sign of respect and coffee ceremonies are performed at holidays, weddings, and gatherings. The act of preparing the drink is time consuming and full attention is paid to the brewing process.) The lengthy process works as a metaphor that extends to Wondemu’s three photographs for which she employs platinum palladium printing to develop her work. Like the drink, her photos are seeped in sepia tones somewhere between the blackest black and the whitest white.

The Jan. 7 opening was well-attended. In the small space, visitors eventually packed in to view the array of works representing the views these Black women have on the color brown and how it relates to their identities. Some artists could have used more time to develop their skills, but the artworks by those more experienced artists adhered to the theme while producing quality art that lingers with the viewer long after the viewing has ended. 

Coffee: A Color Study runs through Jan. 28 at Studio Gallery. Free.