'Taking up space': Black designers focus on joy in Augsburg exhibition

A gallery with people in the back
"To Illuminate Abundance" featuring art by Kelsi Sharp at the Augsburg University Gage Gallery.
Courtesy photo

Designer Terresa Moses is talking about a massive black-and-white graphic she painted directly on a gallery wall at Augsburg University. On a freezing February night, she tells the audience, there for an artist talk, that she was trying to take up space.  

From floor to ceiling, bold lettering that says “Occupy Space with Glory” nestles against the silhouette of a nude Black woman gazing over her shoulder.  

“I was really trying to think about, if liberation were to happen, I would imagine it being a place where we could just take up space,” said Moses, who is an assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota. 

She tells the audience that the typography may look familiar to anyone who’s attended a protest in Minneapolis in the past few years, as it’s shown up across the city on protest signs that say, “I Can’t Breathe” or “Show Up for Black Women.” 

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“I feel like I can drive down and see that type represented,” Moses said, “and let people know that a Black woman created that.” 

A person stands on a ladder and paints a wall
Terresa Moses painting her mural "Glory" on the Christensen Gallery wall.
Courtesy of Jack Willis

Moses is one of nine local Black women and femme designers in the exhibition “To Illuminate Abundance” at Augsburg’s Gage and Christensen galleries through March 24. Here, the curators say, “femme” refers to a person whose gender expression is considered feminine. 

Co-curators and participating artists Olivia House and Silent Fox have been planning this show for more than a year. It is a production of their 13.4 Collective, led and made up by Black artists and designers.

They say the number, 13.4, comes from a recent study that found that Black people make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.  

“It was basically to amplify voices of the Black community and be able to share and reach an audience for the Black community that they normally don't have access to, or aren't aware of, the opportunities because they're not handed to them,” Fox says. 

With “To Illuminate Abundance,” the design partners wanted to collectively imagine a sort of Afrofuturist space where Black women and femmes can celebrate a life beyond surviving and depictions of trauma.

A person in purple looks at something in wall
Leeya Rose Jackson installing her piece inspired by an Octavia Butler quote.
Courtesy of Jenny Wheatley

Afrofuturism, generally, is a movement and aesthetic that uses science fiction, fantasy and history to reimagine the past and present of the Black diaspora, and explore the possibilities of different futures. 

“We thought it was important to feature this joy and light after the past few years of what Minneapolis has experienced, and black women in particular have had to carry in those few years,” says House, who is from Minneapolis but is now based in Chicago. 

Augsburg’s gallery and exhibition coordinator Jenny Wheatley call it a revolutionary act of community. 

“’To Illuminate Abundance’ is an important show because it bears witness to a collaboration of joyous art making,” Wheatley explains. “The show is a celebration of power and healing, of bodies and heritage, of playfulness and sincerity. This show is important because it grounds us in our full humanity, and the possibilities of the future.” 

People stand and pose for a photo
(Back row) Kelsi Sharp, Terresa Moses, Marcia Rowe, Sabrina Peitz, Leeya Rose Jackson, Olivia Anizor (Middle row): Olivia House, Ashley Koudou (front row): Silent Fox. The nine artists and designers of the "To Illuminate Abundance" exhibition at Augsburg University.
Courtesy of Sarah Johanson

Along with Moses, House and Fox, designers Ashley Koudou, Kelsi Sharp, Leeya Rose Jackson, Marcia Rowe, Olivia Anizor and Sabrina Peitz created everything from digitally designed photographic memory quilts and murals inspired by playlists curated for healing to a tufted carpet installation celebrating curly hair.

The two galleries overflow with colors and patterns at a large scale.  

“I really expected it to be like a majority poster show, you know, just like thinking what a typical designer would do,” says House, explaining that designers usually have to create for a client, who is not typically themselves. “But each of the artists kind of started asking me individually, do you mind if I explore something else?” 

Fox and House prompted the group to create an artwork to illuminate a meaningful text or quote. Jackson, for one, chose an excerpt from science fiction author Octavia Butler: “Change is the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe,” painted across layered pieces of wood in a cosmic installation.  

A person stands by a exhibition
Olivia House and her research project and exhibition "Where Are All the Black Designers?" at First Avenue in 2018.
Courtesy of Olivia House

On a salvaged lightbox sign, Sharp painted the monster’s words from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Moses chose to create her own quote, “Occupy Space with Glory,” to take up more space, she says. 

There is another reason, House says, for an art exhibition featuring graphic designers. It is part of her ongoing research project, “Where Are All the Black Designers?”, which she started as an undergraduate at Augsburg a few years go. She was a graphic design student at the time and says that she couldn’t name one Black graphic designer. 

“When I was doing some research on the history of Black graphic designers, one thing that I found was it was very rarely that designers, in general, were credited for things. And I was looking specifically at Black designers, and they were almost never credited,” House said at the artist talk. “So, I just imagine Black women and femmes are right down there, and just not going to get the credit that we deserve in those spaces. 

A person working on a quilt
Show co-curator Olivia House working on her digital quilt "Mended."
Courtesy photo

That research project culminated in a 2018 Augsburg exhibition featuring nine Black graphic designers from the 20th century, including Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers, and Dorothy Hayes, who House says was a mentor to the next generation of designers. That exhibition also traveled to First Avenue and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.  

House says her mentor during college, associate professor of graphic design Christopher Houltberg, even adapted the curriculum with some of her research findings. 

Now, House says, she can add the designers of “To Illuminate Abundance” to that canon of graphic design. 

To close the artist talk, House told her fellow designers: “I've fan-girled over all of you. I followed you on Instagram for years. And so, for you all to be up here, sitting beside me, is just incredible.” 

She added, “I'm just going to keep making these spaces for us.” 

There will be guided tours of “To Illuminate Abundance” on Sunday afternoons through March 24, as well as on the evenings of Feb. 23 and March 23. 

A person painting a sign
Kelsi Sharp painting a salvaged Starbucks sign with a quote from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."
Courtesy of Jack Willis
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.