MARK BENNETT: 'Public Blackness' exhibit encourages understanding, change, healing
The invitation is open to all. Local school kids. Adults. Families. College students. Elected officials. Everybody. From any background.
Anyone who visits the “Public Blackness” exhibit, spread throughout at Indiana State University’s three campus art galleries, will gain a better understanding of folks who share this community. A tour of the artwork, photographs, historical information, choreographed dance video and virtual reality experience offers a deeper awareness of racial issues. Enlightenment can lead to healing divisions and changing for the better.
That’s the hope of Adeyemi Doss and Tanmaya Bingham, collaborators on the project that includes dozens of contributing presenters, artists, writers and historians.
Visitors can also contribute their own reflections to an 18-foot-wide, interactive mural.
The exhibit aims to provide “a safe platform” for the community to learn, observe, converse and be inspired to “transform outdated and unconscious biases.”
“I think at the end of the day, we’re just really trying to help heal this,” Bingham said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, these things you think were only happening in the past are still happening today, and this is still a problem, and let’s try to make an effort to gain awareness and heal.’”
Doss teaches sociology classes as an assistant professor in ISU’s Department of Multidisciplinary Students. Bingham serves as director of ISU’s three art galleries.
Work on the project began last August. It features some powerful elements, which will be on display through Feb. 24 in the Yang Family University Art Gallery (in the Landini Center for the Arts at Seventh and Cherry streets) and Bare-Montgomery Gallery (in Fairbanks Hall), and through March 17 in Turman Gallery (in the Fine Arts Building).
“Public Blackness” opens Thursday with a reception from 4 to 8 p.m. in the galleries, and a presentation by performers and artists from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in ISU’s Landini Center for the Arts at Seventh and Cherry streets. A panel discussion of the exhibit is scheduled for 3 to 4 p.m. Friday in Turman Gallery.
Admission is free. The exhibit is a timely opportunity for this community to listen, talk and learn.
One of the exhibit’s most compelling elements is an illustrative photograph captured by Doss and displayed in the Turman Gallery’s portion of the “Public Blackness” exhibit. The photo shows a Black man removing blackface makeup to reveal his own actual skin, reflected in a bathroom mirror. The blackface makeup represents the stereotypes attached to the Black body through history.
“It sort of represents what happens when you are bombarded with so many of these stereotypes, but in private you’re able to what we can ‘take off the mask,’” Doss explained.
A glass case beside the entry to the display in Turman Gallery contains depictions of those stereotypes. Their demeaning effect intensifies when assembled together. It is Doss’ private collection of degrading caricatures of Black people from the Jim Crow era through today. Some items date back to 1865, including a few donated by one of Doss’ college professors. Some Doss purchased recently, at a local mall, no less — one being a trinket depicting a Black boy riding an alligator.
The collection represents “sort of a history of how the Black body, in particular, is scripted through many different forms of media — books, children’s toys, toothpaste, games, cartoons,” Doss said.
Several come from the minstrel comedy genre of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exaggerating and marginalizing African Americans. Another item is a box containing a tube of “Darkies” toothpaste. There’s also an Aunt Jemima pancake mix box, which was just rebranded in 2021 from its original name (based on a 19th-century “mammy” minstrel character) to Pearl Milling Company.
Coupled with Doss’ photo illustrations, the images are “representing what the Black body does when it embodies all of those stereotypes,” he added.
Interpretive text, mounted beside the memorabilia, explains its discriminatory impact. Doss labels the collection “Blacking Up: Confronting a History of America’s Obsession with Minstrelsy.”
“I think about the white children of the Jim Crow South. They were bombarded with these images to the point it became normalized,” Doss said. “And, so it forces you to question, ‘How was I raised? How was I raised to see Black bodies as objects to be feared, or objects that are not human?’”
Doss grew up in Gary, with educated parents — his father a social worker and mother a nurse. The 38-year-old earned a bachelor’s degree from Earlham College and master’s and doctoral degrees from Indiana University. Today, his classes at ISU, with a diverse range of students, delve into topical subjects, often considered controversial.
“We talk about these things in class, and my students, I think they enjoy it because I give them that space to express themselves and to reflect on the things they see and they read,” Doss said. “And we need more of that.”
The largest element of the Turman portion of the “Public Blackness” exhibit is the interactive mural. Its center features a Black man with his hands covering his face, surrounded by colorful butterflies and the “faces of individuals who have died over the years due to state-sanctioned violence,” Doss explained, dating from Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 to those lost recently, such as Breonna Taylor in Kentucky in 2020.
Visitors are encouraged to express their own thoughts on the mural, with a batch of markers nearby. Students were hesitant to mark on the mural, at first, but several have done so since it went up. Anybody can add to the mural.
“Write on it,” Doss said. “If you have any quotes or reflections, draw on it and engage it in a way where you are part of the mural and you understand what’s going on. Put your thoughts on it.”
Bingham hopes the panel discussion and presentations next week inspire more contributions to the mural.
“This isn’t a one-way street, and that’s the whole point,” she said. “Yes, we’re showing you stuff, but we also want you to show us how you feel about that stuff.”
Thoughtful expression and understanding can improve daily life, for everybody. Tools like the “Public Blackness” exhibit foster such consideration.
“Today, we tend to hear words like ‘indoctrination,’ and it’s like, ‘No, it’s about growth,’” Doss said. “Even though we’re talking about race, racism and identity, I’m always thinking about the words of my father. He says it’s not about race; it’s all about individuals’ self-empowerment. The idea is about us making ourselves stronger, the community stronger and the world stronger. And I live by that.”