Museums, archives and other cultural institutions all have a role in shaping the mainstream historical narrative. The objects they preserve—books, art and primary historical documents—contain bits and pieces of the human story. But those items alone are not able to paint the entire picture. Preserving history comes down to editing. Which begs the question, whose stories are told, and whose stories are edited out? At the Evanston Art Center, conceptual artist Shonna Pryor delves into hidden individual histories to explore their past, present, and future in her solo exhibition “Of Portals and Pathways II: Fiscal Frontiers.”
The National Archives is this country’s record-keeper. Among documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the taxpayer-funded public archive also holds post-Civil War census records of formerly enslaved Black people. This is where Pryor’s exhibition starts, a direct confrontation with the brutal and complex history of Black existence in the United States. The census forms, in Pryor’s context, represent an exultation of freedom, no matter how incremental. She unearths these archival documents and uses them to paper the entrance of the exhibition. This bold opening statement is the backdrop to Pryor’s conceptual body of work and surrealist exhibition of reclaimed cultural ephemera. Small gold chandeliers hang from the ceiling. What appears to be empty frames decorate the walls. In the center of the room, mixed-media sculptures hang from the ceiling swaying gently in the space. And at the very end of the room, framed by a large picture window, is a perfectly placed tea party on a white tablecloth featuring one guest, a stuffed bear. Nothing in the show is straightforward; every piece is filled with interesting little details that call on you to get closer and take a more meaningful look.
The exhibition run is brief, from February 19 to March 26. But it wouldn’t make sense to happen at any other time. February is Black History Month, and in recent years institutions nationwide have been called to do more than parrot the accomplishments of a few Black historical figures. February is a moment. It’s a celebration. It’s a time to connect. But crucially, it’s a time to have dialogues. Pryor deftly weaves themes like Afrofuturism, domesticity and Black identity to tell a story about individual histories in the broader context of the Black narrative. Her tablecloth pieces were my favorite take on the theme. The three-dimensional collage sculptures are assembled by reinforcing found tablecloths with canvases printed with the same found archival census documents from the entrance. The fusion of the two items serves as a reminder of the humanity of the people listed on the documents. By contextualizing reclaimed objects she restores the emotional and cultural significance of both objects.
Pryor attempts to recover a heritage lost to time. The individual stories of life and survival define our history and make up our shared identity as Black people. Acknowledging those individuals brings the overarching conversations about history down to earth. In doing so she creates an opportunity for collective ancestral work. Her practice links the past, present and future of the ancestral collective of Black people. Pryor’s practice is deeply rooted in the past but is looking toward the future. She asserts that Black history didn’t start with slavery and that it doesn’t end with the civil rights movement. Beneath the dining table, a tab on an old fashioned cash register slowly adds up. A spiral of receipt paper gathers around the object. And we still need to figure out who going to pay for it and how.
“Of Portals and Pathways II: Fiscal Frontiers” at Evanston Art Center, 1717 Central Street, Evanston. Through March 26.