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'Black Identities' exhibit marks cultural shift for Mia

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Esther Callahan; Gabriel Ritter; Keisha Williams
Curatorial affairs fellow Esther Callahan, left, curator and head of contemporary art Gabriel Ritter, and curatorial department assistant and artist Liaison Keisha Williams worked on "Mapping Black Identities."
Courtesy Ana Taylor, Minneapolis Institute of Art

A new exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, called "Mapping Black Identities," is made up entirely of work by black artists.

The exhibit, which occupies two galleries in Mia's modern and contemporary art wing, features paintings, prints, photography, sculpture and textile installations. There are brightly colored abstract pieces from the 1970s and rich, somber portraits painted just last year.

"The work that you are seeing in this exhibition is charting an alternative narrative to what this institution is based on," said curator Gabriel Ritter, "which is a history and a narrative of white supremacy." 

A recent survey of 18 major art museums in the United States found that 85 percent of the artists in their collections are white; 87 percent are men. Many museums are moving to diversify their artwork, but it's hard to make quick, substantive changes to a collection that's been built over a century.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s triptych of paintings “Shelves for Dynamite.”
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's triptych of paintings "Shelves for Dynamite" is part of Minneapolis Institute of Art's exhibition "Mapping Black Identities."
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

Acquiring the art isn't the only challenge, Ritter explained: "How do I, as a white man, put together an exhibition that is trying to be about realities and identities I haven't lived?"

Ritter decided to try something that's a rather radical concept in the museum world, but that he'd heard other curators talk about: He gave up some of his power. He partnered with curatorial assistant Keisha Williams and curatorial affairs fellow Esther Callahan.

As museum staffers who are also black women, they had lots to contribute. Together, they decided to see if they could put together a show of black artists entirely from the museum's collection.

And they almost succeeded.

More than half the works in the exhibit are part of the permanent collection; about a third have been promised to the museum, but for now are on long-term loan. The largest piece in the show belongs to the Walker Art Center. 

Joe Overstreet’s “Evolution”
Contemporary art curator Gabriel Ritter says works such as Joe Overstreet's "Evolution" offer an alternative art history to what typically hangs on the walls of museums shaped by colonialism and white supremacy.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

Williams said the work was — and continues to be — framed by a simple question: "Do you see yourself represented in this museum?"

"And I think for a lot of people the answer would be 'no' — especially for myself as a black woman, the answer is typically no."

But that's changed, Williams said, now that "Mapping Black Identities" is up:

"Now I can walk into a space and say, 'There are so many artists that represent me, and that represent multiple identities of friends, family, coworkers — and I think that's really beautiful."

Looking at the exhibition, it's easy to see the influence of Williams and Callahan. A large number of black women artists are represented.

Delita Martin’s “Between Sisters”
Delita Martin's "Between Sisters" is a recent acquisition by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum is working to fill in what has up until now been a major gap in the collection -- work by black artists.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

The labels include quotes from the artists talking about their work, rather than leaving it all to the curator's interpretation.

And then there's the range of subject matter. All too often, said Callahan, art that features black bodies is rooted in struggle or trauma.

"I wanted to see joy represented by people that reflect the culture I exist in, and this was not something I had really seen on the walls here and really truly in a lot of other museums," she said. "I now feel as if I belong in this museum in a way I never felt that I belonged before."

The exhibition will be up for at least a year. Williams said that's important, because it will serve as a constant reminder to the staff and patrons of the presence of exceptional black artists.

"My hope is that this exhibition will really put black artists into the museum and the art historical canon that they rightly deserve," she said.

Williams and the others agree that "Mapping Black Identities" is just one part of an ongoing effort for the Minneapolis Institute of Art to earn its nickname as "the people's museum."