Black and queer artists with something to say on display at Hennepin Theatre Trust
“Develop enough courage so that you can stand up for yourself, and then stand up for somebody else.”
If anyone embodies these Maya Angelou words, it’s a sure-footed artist with a shaved head, wearing a perfectly tailored outfit as she speaks out in support of natural Black hair and against anti-sagging. Chi Chi X is a 21-year-old artist in a cohort of young Black, queer artists with work now on display in “BLK LOVE,” a group exhibition by Black Visions Cohort at the Hennepin Theatre Trust gallery. The exhibit features the original artworks of local Black queer and trans early-career artists Ayana Lance, Chi-Chi X, Miles Jamison, Noah Lawrence-Holder, Qwayed Akuei and Yasmeenah.
Chi Chi’s eye-catching piece is titled “Controversial.” It’s a mixed-media piece featuring a mannequin wearing sagging jeans over underwear with a bold message — END RESPECTABILITY POLITICS — and a pair of wings crafted from a thick, black wig.
Chi Chi says the work is inspired by the internalized censorship she faces due to respectability politics. She hopes to make people question internalized anti-Blackness.
“People don’t understand the internalized Blackness that comes with sagging,” she says. “Being Black gives you wings. Black hair is also often politicized.”
Chi Chi’s is just one powerful piece of art created for “BLK LOVE.” During a nine-month cohort, the artists explored multiple mediums that have been used to shape social movements through artist workshops paired with community organizing training. Sessions were led by Black Visions Collective and Nancy Musinguzi, and facilitated with the support of six local Black, queer and trans artists.
For their final project, the artists have curated a group exhibit that showcases their individual and collective “Black Visions” for a better future for Black Minnesotans.
Musinguzi, a visual artist, photographer and visual anthropologist who uses the pronouns they/them, says it has been fulfilling and challenging to teach these students.
“With Black Visions Cohort, I not only wanted youth to be taught by people who looked like them but shared their values and goals in using art as a tool for community engagement and social transformation,” they said. “I have never taught young people in this capacity, bridging art and grassroots organizing into one program that affirms their lived experiences and worldviews about community, creativity and social change. And that changed me, expanding my imagination of what sort of impact I can have in my community: as an artist, educator, curator and organizer.”
At an opening reception/dance party for the “BLK LOVE” exhibit, each of the young artists shared thoughts about how important this experience has been. Many say they are inspired to keep producing art.
“This experience has been very empowering and very affirming,” says artist Yasmeena, who created “Black Love,” a photography/videography piece. “Through this program, I realized I can do anything if I have the resources.”
She says her goal was to create a conversation around “what it means to embrace Black love in all its complexities and idiosyncrasies.”
Miles Jamison created a digital video titled “Black Joy,” and says her art is a way to break through limitations and process traumas placed on her as a marginalized member of society.
“This experience has been a learning experience and a healing experience,” she says. “This is one of the first times I’ve been taught by Black, queer people. People don’t know that we exist, but we’re here.”
Both the artists and teachers echoed the idea that providing access to resources empowers art from minority communities.
“The cohort has been one of the most meaningful experiences in recent memory. I want to thank everyone for the tools,” shared artist Qwayed-Ashan Nyajack Akuei. “I’m a first generation Black, queer, non-binary animator and videographer. I don’t see enough young Black queers in media, especially animation. My priority is to illustrate the truly deep spectrum of emotion my community exhibits day to day.”
As an artist with 14 years of experience, Nancy offers their experience of the issue.
“The act of gatekeeping resources from marginalized and historically underrepresented communities is strategic and intentional,” says Nancy. “By bringing our community together in this way through culturally specific projects, programs and events, we are actively creating opportunities for Black people to affirm their Blackness, develop authentic relationships, and collectively strengthen our resilience in ending community violence. This integration aims to transform culture and develop new narratives about the lives of Black Minnesotans in order to fight for systemic changes.”
Musinguzi says they are working with Black Visions Collective because of the organization’s dedication to ensuring the holistic well-being of young, Black, immigrant, queer and trans Minnesotans.
”It’s also just something I don’t frequently see done enough in the philanthropic world, especially how they center and celebrate Black cultures and traditions to guide their organizing work, create opportunities for Black people to affirm their Blackness, develop authentic relationships, and collectively strengthen our community’s resilience.”
The project aligns with Hennepin Theatre Trust’s vision of driving economic and cultural vitality in the Hennepin Theatre District in downtown Minneapolis, and because of the Trust’s goal of bringing together diverse partners and people to help make relevant and meaningful programming, and our downtown a destination for everyone.
Musinguzi says this work is important in allowing new narratives about Black Minnesotans.
“Young people are the ones leading and shaping our social movements,” says Musinguzi.
And each of those young people have a strong answer to the central question posed by this project and exhibit: What does the future of Black Minnesota look like?
Noah Lawrence-Holder says, “This process is not only an act of healing, but a way for me to manifest new futures.”
Yasmeena offers: “Black love is the thing that keeps me going and keeps me grounded.”