Land and landscapes personify interrelated experiences: dreams and nightmares, care and violence, spirituality and trauma, romance and heartbreak, sentimentality and sadness, ease and discontent. The land—this land—is both metaphor and tangible archive for curator Anisa Olufemi in “Dreamscapes: Imaginings of a Black Pastoral” at Roots & Culture. Olufemi is curator-in-residence of the gallery’s 2021 CONNECT, a program which highlights curatorial projects by women-of-color curators. “Dreamscapes” is the culmination of this residency and a touchstone within their larger curatorial and writing practices.
To grasp the curator’s vision, it is imperative to address the meaning of the title. A “dreamscape” refers to a landscape with the strangeness or mystery characteristic of dreams. “Imaginings” looks for the possibilities in what is often right around the corner. “Black Pastoral” adds to this with the specificity of Black queer and femme experiences within rural and non-urban landscapes, past and present. Together, “Dreamscapes: Imaginings of a Black Pastoral” is a queer liberatory space for reimagining non-urban places through Black American’s current and historical relationships to land. “Dreamscapes” is “a celebration of all the ways in which Black Americans have forged fondness for the landscapes they have come to know and forgive, without forgetting,” according to the curatorial statement.
The exhibition features work by Shala Miller, Jada-Amina, POETIK, Namir Fearce, Derrick Woods-Morrow, R. Treshawn Williamson, Shabez Jamal and Tavon Taylor. Their fifteen multimedia objects acknowledge, affirm and bear witness to the Black pastoral as a conduit to intergenerational joy. “Their work highlights the overlooked nuances of Black American life, legacy and lineage—pulling apart misconceptions of Black rurality, Indigeneity, and Southernness, while pointing toward the endless possibilities of Earth-bound salvation,” the curator’s text states. Viewing each artwork is like walking through a landscape where works respond to each other in a rolling sequence of experiences. In this dreamscape, we see the tree and the forest simultaneously.
Upon entering Roots & Culture, an eight-by-ten inch black-and-white photograph by Shala Miller is nested between the entry space and two French doors—the white matte and frame nearly blend into the gallery walls. Amidst a washed-out rocky landscape is Miller lying down, arm propped up, directly gazing at the camera while two other figures hop from rock to rock above. “Rock Self Portrait” unfolds art history’s examples of pastoral scenes with white figures posed in the landscape. They adjust this gaze to include multiple poetic gazes—we experience tensions between visibility, place and self discovery. Miller is part of the landscape, camouflaged in the boulders and the seemingly vacant foreground, yet once visible in the photograph, their presence and the landscape become inseparable. The quietness of this photograph serves as a thesis for “Dreamscapes”: landscapes, seen and unseen, carry the essence of its inhabitants.
Across from Miller’s self-portrait, voices and dreamy sounds push through a forest-green doily curtain, inviting inquiry. Inside the screening space is Jada-Amina’s seven-minute video “I’m Not Going To Die, I’m Going Home, Like A Shooting Star” and a tangerine church pew. Cutting between cultural data from their personal archive and the public domain, Jada-Amina “explores a realm where time and space are modulated by radical mothering, collective mourning, and Black queer futures.” This video superimposes curated oral histories and family vignettes, creating a visceral space for the Black ecstatic in Black femmehood. A blue hue washes over narration, interview and intimate moments of self care. The video’s narrators include Phyllis Hyman, Sun Ra, Marsha P. Johnson, Octavia St. Laurent and Sandra Bland. Scenes of two Black beings wearing silky garments interact with the same orange church pew placed in autumn forest. Additional clips of a cotton plant blooming speak to plural histories of plants and the land. For Olufemi, “What our elders insisted on making possible allows for a boundlessness of what we can do now—to be radical in what we can imagine through queer Black wonder.”
Hung on the exterior of this screening space are POETIK‘s collages,which display a historical and future gaze of Black life in rough-cut and hand-rendered scenes—the correlation between Jada-Amina and POETIK’s work is clear. The words and sounds pulsing out of the screening space add layers to POETIK’s already complex collages. In this moment, we understand the curator’s intent for the works to be in conversation, literally in this instance.
Presenting two physical collages and one video collage, POETIK cuts and pastes from the realities and allegories of Black culture’s connection to the land. By placing figures, known and unknown, in earthly hand rendered collagescapes, POETIK expresses the expansiveness of what is and what could be. In “Uphill Battle” and “Timeless Aspirations,” she combines imagery from W.E.B. Du Bois, ripped family photographs, archival and found material and rough sketching, with black thread puncturing the paper, the mixed media surrounded by a decorative gold frame. Across the gallery is the video collage also titled “Timeless Aspirations,” which similarly shuffles between the emotional and the beautiful, the archive and pop culture. These collages provide a lens for valuing the entirety of Black history layered into this land.
As if in a conversation on a park bench, Namir Fearce’s video “In This Wicked Womb,” faces POETIK’s video collage in the larger gallery. Fearce’s video navigates radical queer pleasure. This six-minute video is, according to the artist, “informed by a constellation of Black Atlantic histories and sites of memory.” Within “In This Wicked Womb,” two queer Black humans share intimate moments in a bath tub. A sensual R&B soundscape overlays the scene with lyrics like, “I want the world to see that you’re happy with me.” Cut to scenes of bees and flowers, colorized and distorted archival footage of Black babies playing, Black folx working fields, a Black queer person styling another’s hair, and two anonymized Black queer folx crawling across a net, tenderly teasing at ropes that surround their face and bodies. Headphones allow this stop in “Dreamscapes” to be a personal respite for contemplation. Here, Black queer love is the future and queer intimacy is restorative and disruptive. Fearce’s video reclaims Black pleasure, lust and intimacy in a landscape of liberation.
Next to Fearce’s video is a work by Derrick Woods-Morrow exploring Black queer sexual freedoms and the complicated histories concerning access to these freedoms. “Hover | Twilight at Lincoln Beach,” is a forty-eight-by-thirty-two-inch piezographic carbon print of a figure standing in a vast body of water. The subject, with their back to the camera, is nearly concealed by their locks, a linen blouse and a dramatic overcast shadow. The anonymous ghostly figure speaks to a multigenerational presence of ancestral lives lost at sea. Olufemi, through Woods-Morrow’s work, asks us: “How did Black American queer beings arrive?”
Next, R. Treshawn Williamson presents three interrelated works. “Untitled (iteration 1)” is a meditation on the lived histories of Black Americans through his personal records. The first work is a photograph of his grandmother in her graduation cap and gown. Below the photograph is a small gold metallic plaque reading, “For memories that are too stubborn to fade. For the dreams that haunt us. To be interested; captured by love,” which ties back to POETIK’s gold frame and Jada-Amina’s video. The legacy of his family’s connection to the South and Black aspiration is shown in this domestic-scaled print. In the center of the gallery is a geometric garden. Nature is literally sprouting in the gallery with pink flora and creeping ivy vines. We quickly understand that the garden is a metaphorically rich piece for both Williamson and the exhibition at large. The act of sowing seeds breathes life into existence. This is especially the case for Williamson’s grandmother, who watches over the garden.
Williamson’s third work is a seventy-two-by-forty-eight-inch print on canvas of a dark landscape, an unfixed charcoal print with three serif footnote-style references hidden across the scene. One such footnote reads, “They informed me of the political importance of the Tuareg, often referred to as the ‘Blue People’ due to the way their skin takes on a deep blue hue from the traditional indigo-soaked fabrics they wear.” Williamson invites viewers to walk with his ancestors, and the other works in the exhibition, to listen to what the land remembers. Throughout these three artworks, we move forward and backward in time simultaneously with intergenerational histories and stories.
Here Olufemi’s research on the queer Black pastoral hits its stride. Metaphors and deeply personal and communal memories coalesce within the landscape. They have curated an exhibition as complex as a landscape. Artists share references and speak with each other while also having their own individual roles within the whole—Black ecology is a “joyful ode and a tender offering.”
In a nook with windows facing Milwaukee Avenue, photographer and collagist Shabez Jamal’s two digital collages pinned to the wall in an off-centered stack combine family public records from the St. Louis neighborhood of Kinloch. “Kinloch Collage no. 6” and “Kinloch Collage no. 8 (Family Reunion)” redefine placemaking by understanding family as geography. Olufemi asks, “What gets lost in public records and city planning schematics?” Jamal’s family reunions in the South and in Kinloch reclaim the Black outdoors through familial celebration. Unlike POETIK’s hand-cut collages, Jamal’s collages employ digital technologies like Photoshop to render new connections held in family albums and bureaucratic materials. The effect remains potent as text, select-and-filled shapes and Black families are layered together.
The third collage, “Photo Album Reconstruction no. 2,” is a three-dimensional assemblage of family and liturgical photos on plexiglass. Five plexiglass fins holding seven photographs stand vertically out of a rectilinear plywood base. Viewers peer through Jamal’s archive to create new connections through time and space, Christian or otherwise. In this work, references to the church as a pillar of Black American culture ring clear. The church, for Jamal, is a place of personal, familial and cultural reverence.
Also in this smaller gallery is the amorphous textilescape by Woods-Morrow, “…people said to me—this is very serious and not just a confession, I’m not just being self-indulgent— ‘All right, you were working, now stop working. Forget it! Have a drink. Why are you so serious all the time? You can’t [—–] all the time, [—–]. Relax. Have you ever had anyone tell you to relax?’.” For this piece, the artist produced a custom toile de Jouy print of Black beings in leisure and LGBTQIA+ cruising spaces. Woods-Morrow titled this particular textile, “Restoration Toile.” Woods-Morrow then stitches additional layers of fabric harkening to the outdoors (burlap) and the queer (metallic glam fabrics). Together, the sensual collaged fabrics cascade down the gallery wall as a queered topographic map.
As the concluding artwork, Tavon Taylor’s photograph, “The Clouds Whispered Your Name (image 10),” stands as an ellipsis, not a period. Like Miller’s opening photograph, Taylor presents a Black individual in a bucolic landscape. This lush, full-color photograph subverts a traditionally white art-historical canon of humans in the pastoral. The rocky pillow draped with a pillowcase, the brown linen pants, the collaged in pine branch (not from the tree behind) and the living grass all serve as metaphors and references for coalescing the previous fourteen objects in “Dreamscapes.” We see the multiplicity of a Black pastoral. The restful, yet inquisitive posture of the figure can not be extracted from contemporary and historical experiences. In the figure’s longing gaze, we, the viewer, prescribe meaning on their stare. Serene? Contemplative? Pain? Joy? Taylor’s photograph asks us to see the queer Black being as a sedimentary landscape—Blackness, queerness and the non-urban are layered, nuanced experiences of possibility. Yes, and. Like the other works in the exhibition, questions and propositions remain for extended discourse.
In the book, “Black in the Midwest: An Anthology of the Black Midwest,” editor Terrion L. Williamson writes, “We know this place […] what our bodies have felt, what our eyes have seen […] we do indeed know this place.” “Dreamscapes” intentions and themes add complexity encompassing Blackness in America by including the multiplicities of queer Black rurality, in and beyond the Midwest. Land, in this exhibition, is a common denominator for stirring a range of sensations in contemporary queer, femme, Black American life. Olufemi and the eight artists in “Dreamscapes” present an invitation to reimagine, to dream of the potentialities in Black-made landscapes and the “subsequent power of these places.” (Alex Priest)
“Dreamscapes: Imaginings of a Black Pastoral” is on view at Roots & Culture, 1034 North Milwaukee, through September 5.