RIVAA Puts Black Artists in the Spotlight

“I call it American history – black history is part of American history,” said curator Lorraine Williams in her remarks at the opening of Hidden Talent, an art exhibit sponsored by the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association (RIVAA) in celebration of Black History Month.

Williams, known for her signature red beret and dark glasses, is a longtime Islander who has been curating RIVAA’s Black History Month exhibition for the past five years.

The exhibition, currently on display at RIVAA’s Octagon gallery at 888 Main Street, showcases the work of nine very different artists, many of whom offered commentary on black life in America and what Black History Month means to them.

The exhibit runs through March 25 at the Octagon Gallery, 888 Main Street.

In February 1926, Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of black history,” created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., a precursor to what is now Black History Month. Woodson was an American historian, author, journalist, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. His goal was to ensure that students were exposed to black history in school. Woodson chose the second week of February in honor of the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass.

In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford expanded African American Week into a full month, saying the country needed to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of African Americans in every area of endeavors throughout our history.”

Three-time Gallery RIVAA artist Aziza, is a printmaker and illustrator whose pieces document a century of jazz music. Aziza attends jazz performances and sketches live, later turning those sketches into lithographs and foil prints. To her, the yearly exhibition is an opportunity for community engagement.

“We all, no matter our background, ethnicity, gender, or age can celebrate the beauty, diversity, and often complexity of Black culture and the Black experience,” she says.

The exhibit also features the work of Aziza’s mother, Ida Owens, who said her paintings of masks revolved around the concept of hidden talent. “I’ve been intrigued by masks and mask makers, the things we reveal and things we hide,” she said.

Artists Aziza and Ida Owens with a painting by Owens

This is the third time the mother and daughter have exhibited together. Of her childhood with Owens and her father, also an artist, Aziza said, “I celebrate black history and black excellence everyday; that’s just how I was raised.”

Mauricio “Gleams” Baez, a resident of 4 River Road, presented his first piece of art at the exhibition, a sculpture called Blame Game. He collaged a pair of work boots with corporate symbols, including logos from BMW, Starbucks, and Air Jordan sneakers, along with parts of the New York City subway map, careful to only include parts of the city “that have already been gentrified.” The title of his piece was inspired by the role minorities play in consumerism.

“My people blame white people too much when it’s also our fault,” said Baez, a black Dominican. He hopes to change the narrative around consumerism in Black and Latino communities. “We spend money on other stuff, when we should be putting money back into our communities.” Blame Game is the first piece of art he has ever made

Click to view larger. Photos by Irina Island Images

For artist and poet Albert Dépas, being featured in an exhibit focused on black history has multiple layers of meaning. “On the first level, it is an honor to be included in the celebration of my cultural heritage,” he says. “However, when that celebration occurs for the lack of recognition within the society that I am part of, it appears to indicate that my cultural heritage is not worthy for inclusion in that [larger] society.”

Other artists featured are Abdul Badi, Jean Dominique Volcy, Micheline Hess, Andrew Nichols, and Pax Rwanda. Hess, who was recently featured in The WIRE for her work within the comics industry, encouraged others to speak out about the importance of diversity. Hess says her art in the current exhibit explores elements of Afro-Futurism and fantasy arts.

Hidden Talent is on display at the Octagon Gallery through March 25.

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