The call to artists went out last fall seeking works that answer the question: What can we learn when we put Black lives in focus?
The result is a powerful collection of works, reproduced on tall screens placed along the walkway between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The exhibition launches Black Lives in Focus, a larger, university-wide initiative.
Pitt graduates and regional artists are approaching the theme on many levels with a mix of mediums, from photography and quilts to ceramics and painting.
“There is a wide range of artworks,” says Sylvia Rhor, director and curator of the University Art Gallery and co-director of Black Lives in Focus. “There are some that celebrate Black beauty and try to put the focus on contesting stereotypes. Others are homages to some people who have been lost, as well as photographs and quilts that deal with history.”
Seventeen artists are represented among the 30 panels of artworks and text. Work by talented students takes its place alongside well-known names, such as fiber artist Tina Williams Brewer and mixed media artist Charlotte Ka. The pieces are lovely and beautiful, jarring and painful, rich with emotion and passion.
Ten panels of text from community responses are interspersed among the visual art. The written word panels provide similar sentiment from the likes of songwriter A’Leighsha Gibson, rapper Jordan Montgomery and performing artist Treble NLS.
The Say Her Name Memorial Gown is another provocative piece of the Black Lives in Focus initiative. Designed by costumier and director KJ Gilmer of Pitt’s Theatre Arts Department, the gown represents the vibrant style of Black women along with the violence that has tormented them through racism.
“She created this gown that was inspired by the Jet magazines she used to read as a young girl, and also inspired by women throughout the decades who have passed away from police violence, vigilantes,” says Bria Walker, co-director of Black Lives in Focus and assistant professor in Theatre Arts. “It’s this very interesting combination of beauty and hurt at the same time.”
Black history specific to the university receives attention through the initiative’s Black Built Pitt, a digital tour planned for November. The idea was sparked by a call-to-action letter from Black student organizations to the administration in 2020.
“One of the things that many students wanted was to learn more about Black history that happened on campus,” Walker says. “So when I read the letter, I thought, ‘What can I do, how can I help be an agent of change within this?’ ”
Brainstorming, organizing and connecting with the World History Center got the project off the ground. The Nov. 1 launch begins with three pieces of Pitt history: the 1969 computer center takeover at the Cathedral of Learning, the creation of Kuntu Repertory Theatre and the Afrolatinidad Studies initiative.
“We’re looking to advance this website every semester and add another piece of information to it,” Walker says. “It will be a living, breathing digital archive.”
The Black Lives in Focus outdoor exhibit is on view through Sept. 23, when it will travel to Pitt’s four regional campuses. The images and text can also be viewed online. The Say Her Name Memorial Gown will be on view through Sept. 23 at the University Art Gallery, where reservations are required.