The “Black Is” exhibit at the Montpelier Arts Center features photographers Cheriss May, Tony Mobley, Dee Dwyer and André Chung. (Photo/Shutterstock)

By DeAnna Giles,
Special to the AFRO

A moment in Black history

“You would think that from the surface level, we don’t have anything in common. There was a particular older White gentleman who saw my images and afterwards, came to talk to me and just fell on my arms and cried. I didn’t know what was going on at first and it felt really heavy. He said thank you for telling these stories,” recalled Cheriss May, photojournalist and Howard adjunct professor

Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel has created a space for telling Black stories authentically through the lense of four renowned D.C. photographers in an exhibition titled, “Black Is.”

May and fellow photographers, Dee Dwyer, Tony Mobley and André Chung, collaborated to celebrate what the Black experience is, the importance of documenting Black lives and their hope for the future.

Black Is.

The artists’ work reveals the many facets of Blackness. Throughout the exhibition, it is displayed that Black is love, power, unadulterated and many more.

“The complexities and the nuances of what it means to be a Black person in America,” May said.

Black being unadulterated was a recurring theme throughout the discussion. When asked what it meant, Tony Mobley said, “Unchanged, your pure self, no hidden agendas and a feeling of wanting to evoke change.” 

Importance of documentation 

For decades, Black and Brown people have been marginalized and spaces that celebrate blackness are scarce.

“I would love to continue to be able to exhibit in spaces like this [exhibition] to show my work to the world,” said Mobley.

With each story, it holds significance for the generations to come.

“It’s important for people to see us as they see themselves,” Mobley said. “We’re looked at as being less than. We’ve been struggling for years to just maintain or have some sort of equality as a people dating back to slavery.”

As a journalist and visual storyteller, May expressed it is important to do this work, “ they know the stories that are going on, the work that’s being done and what people are up to.”

May currently works as an adjunct professor at Howard University and does portrait photography and photojournalism assignments with various publications.

While emerging oneself in the fight for change, documenting can be tough.

“When you’re right there in the middle … it’s not easy,” Mobley said. “For me, there’s a lot of pain.”

He talked about how the protests during the summer of 2020 surrounding George Floyd were a wake up call. “It was an expression of humanity,” Mobley said.

“I’ll never forget that,” May added. “I remember it as if it was yesterday, or even today. And there was so much pain. So much anger. In the midst of that, too, there was joy.”

Dwyer said her Blackness became a driving force for documenting Black life. 

“I got involved by going out there with my camera and building community with people but also just being a part of the community,” said Dwyer, who is currently working on a photo book on Chocolate City.

The photographers felt it was necessary to tell Black stories accurately and authentically.

“It’s vitally important for us to push through, and to convey to the world, these visual messages,” Mobley said.

Looking to the future.

The artists’ intent for their work, which is shown throughout the world, is to have a lasting impact on those who experience it.

“I’m hoping that people see that rawness because a lot of our work is raw. Real life is raw. But also they catch a good vibe too when they see our beauty. I’m hoping that people would fill all of that and that’s the feeling that we’re putting out,” Dwyer said.

May said she hopes people are able to connect to the story and what is happening in that moment. 

“ get a sense of everything that this exhibit talks about. The complexities of Black. And I just want people to be able to look at the images and to feel some type of connection to it. Even if that is not your story,” May explained.

The exhibit teaches Black is community— coming together and sharing stories that focus on all aspects of what it means to be Black.

“My ideal is for us to keep pushing that envelope. For us to keep putting these powerful images out to the world to show that, we want change,” Mobley said.

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