‘Irrepressible Soul’ aims to capture the full Black experience

The expansive new exhibit is currently on display at Ohio State’s Urban Art Space.
Dr. Terron Banner
Dr. Terron BannerCourtesy Urban Arts Space

“Irrepressible Soul,” an expansive new art exhibit currently on display at Ohio State’s Urban Art Space, traces its roots to a series of questions kicked around beginning last Juneteenth by creator and curator Iyana Hill.

“How do we educate on the Black experience? And how do we shed light on a group of people that is often marginalized and undermined?” said Hill, who joined fellow curator Dr. Terron Banner for an early June interview at the downtown gallery. “So it was always keeping community first in mind, and then making sure we shared the brilliance and beauty that we know personally with the rest of the world.”

The diversity and range of Black art on display is staggering, ranging from a series of personality-filled, large-scale prints by photographer Sydney Summey to Cameron Granger’s short film “This Must Be the Place,” which plays on a loop in the southeast corner of the space. 

The exhibit also includes: a striking piece by artist Marcus Morris, whose work explores Black culture in Appalachia, as well as the traumas he absorbed growing up Black and queer in rural Ohio; a series of ephemeral, soft-edged photographs by Ky Smiley; and an instillation by Akeylah Wellington, who turned a section of the gallery into a city bus stop, complete with cracked concrete sidewalks and a bench emblazoned with an advertisement for a bail bondsman.

“Blackness is so intersectional, and there are so many ways to exist as a Black person,” Hill said. “We wanted to make sure the show reflected that diverse nature. We have [Adéwálé Adénlé], who’s from Nigeria and used to be a political cartoonist, and we have people from the Caribbean. We have different gender identities and sexualities, and people from different backgrounds and different ages. … So, the question was, how can you encompass Blackness without tapping into those intersectionalities? And you can’t. Everybody’s individual journey in Blackness is important.”

This all-encompassing approach has carried over into the staging of the show, which also incorporates a series of events taking place both in and outside of the gallery and designed to educate and activate the larger community. Tonight (Thursday, June 8), the gallery will host a conversation dubbed “Imagining Black Art” and featuring panelists such as Hill, Banner and Marshall Shorts, among others. And then tomorrow (Friday, June 9), the action moves to Columbus Commons for a Black health and wellness showcase. (A full schedule of events associated with the exhibit can be found here.)

Both Hill and Banner noted the importance of representation, with Hill relaying the excitement of the Black children who toured the exhibit in its opening week. “Seeing them in this space and being like, ‘Oh, wow, that looks like me!’” Hill said. “Then there was one girl, she was so sweet, and she’s going to come back and show me her sketchbook. ... I was lucky enough to have a mom, she’s in early childhood development, and she made sure we learned about different artists and different Black artists. And having that [upbringing] was truly a privilege, because it’s something we’re not taught about.”

This echos what artist AdaObinna Moore said earlier this year, recalling how she graduated from Ohio State in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in art but struggled with never seeing herself reflected in the lesson plans. “We were never taught about African or traditional art,” Moore said in January. “It was never part of the main coursework. It was always something private, or self-discovery, for me."

“There’s that sustained perspective of who a master artist is, and we often think of an old white man,” said Banner, who started to address this idea in creating a course at Ohio State called Black Art in America: Art and Cultural Policies from Reconstruction to Afrofuturism. “There’s an erasure of Black artists and Black women, and how do we address that in academia? How do we address that in textbooks? How do we address that in our own language? And when we present who we view as a fine artist to someone who does not look like them, what does that do to the psyche? What does that do to their sense of identity? To their sense of possibility? It’s important that we reframe how we think and talk about art.”

Throughout the space there are pieces both playful and painful. In addition to curating the exhibit, Hill also designed a series of rooms meant to capture those places where she felt the strongest sense of connection, including a grandmother’s living room (complete with wood-paneled walls and a dish of hard candy on the coffee table), the barbershop/beauty parlor, and a graffiti-painted corner meant to evoke the spirit of hip-hop, which she described as outlet that has allowed the Black community to work through a form of PTSD. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Banner, who said his creative spark has been reinvigorated by the exhibit, completed a series of drawings of Black children and men killed by Columbus police, portraits of Henry Green, Casey Goodson Jr. and others appearing next to early newspaper clippings that absolved authorities and framed their deaths as a result of their own actions. “Talking about Black life, you can’t have the good without the pain, the joy without the hurt,” Banner said. 

For Banner and Hill, these divergent poles on view throughout the space also exist together within a sculpture by Sierra Hamilton, which is rooted in the concept of renewal and features a mesh figure rising from the earth, its wire frame covered in patchy new growth.

“It’s like the piece pulled all the messaging from everything around it,” Banner said, “and then transformed all of that into this tangible, physical thing.”

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