On an unusually warm Saturday morning in an old church-turned-artists-haven, visual artists Charly Palmer and Jamaal Barber are wrapping several of their pieces in plastic wrap while talking about their creative process and what inspires their work.
Both artists — Palmer, a painter, and Barber, a print maker — have multiple “Black History Month” shows throughout February. Barber has an exhibit titled “Bright Black” that opens Feb. 10 through Feb. 23 at the Southwest Arts Center. Palmer has an exhibit at the Auburn Avenue Research Library titled “Divided States,” that will open Feb. 18 through March 25.
But right now, they both are preparing pieces for a group show at the Zucot Gallery, a fixture in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood.
The show is titled “#PROUDBLACK” and is meant to pay homage to the history of Black people in America and to current social media movements focused on creating, proliferating, and uplifting self-affirming images of Black people, for Black.
“My work is an exploration in Black identity,” Barber explains about his approach to art. “It starts with me trying to figure out what exactly is blackness. My work addresses a lot of different issues: community, connectivity, the collective on blackness, individuality, as well as redlining—which was the practice of color-coding cities and determining who got access to loans—and determining what all these looked like visually.”
Similarly, Palmer’s pieces also explore what it means to be black. More specifically, his pieces—which are a part of a series titled “The Silent”—examine images of blackness juxtaposed against the red stripes, white stars and blue hues of the American flag.
“You have to find a way to channel your frustration and anger,” Palmer explained. “So, the series started with a portrait of Kalief Browder.”
In 2010, at age 16 years, Browder was wrongfully accused of the theft of a backpack and its contents including a camera, $700, a credit card and an iPod Touch.
Browder was imprisoned on Rikers Island for three years with time in solitary confinement. He was released when the prosecutor’s case was found lacking in evidence and witnesses.
Two years after his release from prison, Browder committed suicide by hanging himself from an air conditioning unit outside his bedroom window at his mother’s home.
Browder’s supporters say his death was the result of mental and physical abuse sustained in prison.
“The case enraged me but I needed to find a way to express it,” Palmer said. “I decided at that point I wanted to paint Kalief.
“I’d done a painting (of Kalief) and it seemed to be missing something. One day, I’m looking at the painting and I got this Aha moment. I took fifty stars in stencil and painted it over his mouth. And then I put red stripes underneath so it kinda represented the American flag.”
Like Palmer and Barber, the other artists in the exhibit do not only bring light to the constant hate and injustice, but are also creating the portrayal of strength, courage, creativity, and pride.
“In the face of past and present political and social oppression, Black people constantly and consistently continue to embody resilience, pride, and beauty,” explained gallery director and partner Onaje Henderson, who curated the group exhibit. “This exhibition demonstrates our ability to turn our pain into power through the unapologetic assertion of our joy, determination, and above all else – our right to exist as beautifully multifaceted humans in a world increasingly connected through social media.
“Through the emergence of social media movements in the form of hastags, such as, #blackgirlmagic, #melaninpoppin, #blacklove, #blackboyjoy, and #blackowned, Black people have ignited a revolution of self-love and worth,” he continued.