‘Art of Activism’ exhibit in Maryland showcases Black art

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This Jan. 16, 2021 photo shows Artist QRKY at Maryland Hall in Annapolis, Md. QRKY is one of eight Black artists based in Maryland commissioned for the exhibit titled “Art of Activism” on display until Feb. 27. (Paul W. Gillespie/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

By LILLY PRICE, The Capital Gazette

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Six solid black banners that read “Black Lives Matter” in bold yellow letters were draped in front of Maryland Hall during civil rights protests in Annapolis this summer.

The banners, repurposed in color and varying designs by eight Black artists based in Maryland, now welcome guests to visit Maryland Hall’s three-floor “Art of Activism” exhibit, open from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday until Feb. 27.

“Today more than ever we need to use art to not only provide beauty and escapism but also to develop agency, educate, and provide discomfort for the social consciousness,” Maryland Hall describes the new exhibit. “Art of Activism explores the ways in which current Maryland-based Black artists are using their work as a statement of activism.”

Annapolis multi-disciplinary artist Comacell Brown Jr., known as Cell Spitfire, helped paint two murals in the city this summer honoring victims killed by police: one for Kentucky woman Breonna Taylor and Minneapolis man George Floyd. Since then, the driving force behind his recent artworks is activism.

Brown’s work now hangs in Maryland Hall. The banner he was commissioned to paint states “It’s Still Black Lives Matter,” with an image of generations of Black citizens marching in the street.

Brown, 34, said he included the phrase “It’s Still” to “let people know even though it’s a new year, it’s still on the forefront of the mind. It’s still a main goal and objective to make it fair and equal for us all.”

One of Bron’s pieces shows his best friend Tre Da Kid sitting on a throne with the words “Heaven Welcomes Tre Da Kid.” Edward Montre Seay, also known as Tre Da Kid, was a popular Annapolis rapper, father and influential figure in the city. The 32-year-old was murdered in 2019.

“I wanted to showcase him, not for social injustice, but just justice in general,” Brown said.

Tre Da Kid’s picture hangs in a gallery part of the three-floor exhibit expressing and exploring current and historic social justice movements and the pursuit of racial and economic equality in the United States. Prominent figures like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are highlighted or drawn in modern day civil rights marches.

Many pieces reflect quieter moments of Black culture and everyday life: a father holding his daughter, both asleep on a metro, a cubist depiction of a man playing guitar, a mother teaching her children about their lineage in abstract paint.

Alongside images of joy, love and community, other work emphasizes names and faces of social justice victims who died from police brutality. Grief and trauma experienced by Black and marginalized communities is displayed in paint, prints, abstract multi-media and video form, including an art installation that fills an entire room, immersing viewers in a scene that appears to be a normal house until a closer look is taken at the intense, deeper meaning of despair.

Qrcky, a Baltimore-based painter and animator, paints striking portraits of people without eyes. 

Eyes, representing “windows of the soul” are replaced with clocks or missing altogether to symbolize how Black people are regarded to be soulless, and consequently treated as inferior.

“I paint what the world reflects back onto me. It might seem like activism because it never isn’t to me in my life. It never stops, it’s a never ending cycle to fight against White supremacy, police brutality,” Qrcky, 45, said. “The society I live in left me no choice but to paint this.”

While at a Black Lives Matter march this summer, Schroeder Cherry asked to photograph a young father in attendance who was carrying his baby strapped on his chest. That image turned into a layered multi-media piece of the father and child surrounded by a pink background, keys and cards — items often incorporated into Cherry’s work.

“If you look at Black Lives Matter, you’re really talking about people. Here’s an example, a young father with his kid at a protest,” Cherry said. “It’s a generational piece.”

With a theme of social and political activism, Cherry’s painted the first three Black congressmen to represent Maryland, Parren Mitchell, Elijah Cummings and Kweisi Mfume, on playing cards to honor their own activism. He left one card unfilled as a nod to future Black political leaders.

“I wanted to get across Black lives have mattered for a long time and they will matter into the future,” he said.

Cherry, 66, created an interactive artwork of Kamala Harris that viewers are invited open and touch. Harris’ body opens like a pantry where various items are housed, including a brown paper bag representing a historically racist practice of comparing skin tone to a paper bag. The piece represents opening a door to all parts of a person, especially their heritage.

Features artists in the exhibit were selected by a judge panel from Banneker-Douglas Museum and include Annapolis artist Comacell Brown Jr. aka Cell Spitfire; Aaron Mayin, former NFL linebacker and Baltimore painter; Baltimore-based animator and painter Qrcky; multi-media artist Schroeder Cherry from Baltimore; Ashley Milburn, a printmaker from Baltimore; David Cassidy, cubist oil painter based in Upper Marlboro; Greta Chapin McGill and Hyattsville installation artist Nikki Brooks.

Their displayed work is available to buy. Maryland Hall plans to have some digital programming with artists. QR codes located on signs around the gallery can be scanned to learn more about an artist or artwork.