Q&A: Ashley king on first exhibition "brotha"
Interview by Alexa Rixon, Staff Writer
“Brotha: Re-Humanizing the Dehumanized" is Ashley King’s first exhibition, curating works by six black artists to shed light on the ramifications of racial oppression among black men. The reception at The Overlook Place, 3323 W. Armitage Ave., also featured readings and a jazz performance. King is a junior studying graphic design and visual arts management at Columbia College Chicago.
Shredded: This is your first curation?
King: This is my first curation. I’m a curatorial assistant at DEPS (Columbia College’s Department of Exhibitions) right now...what I’m doing for Debra Kayes is what I did here in terms of contacting the artists and I learned how to do that [with DEPS]. That was my only experience when it came to curating. When it came to this show, it’s all about telling a story I realized by going to exhibitions and figuring out what’s missing.
Shredded: What’s "Brotha" about?
King: It’s essentially to rehumanize the black men in a world that continues to dehumanize them. With these artists, I found six artists to explore: angst, despondency, absence and assimilation. I think for angst where it’s when you have anxiety from going through these experiences being in a position where you’re perceived as being a criminal to somebody. And then despondency, the depression and sadness in general when you go through these experiences being judged as a criminal and being stopped by cops. Them thinking you have a weapon on you or weed on you and noticing that somebody else doesn’t get stopped because of their complexion. Basically being judged in a world that always judges, being born as a black body and automatically society labels you as a criminal as a person of color in general. And with absence, too, it’s supposed to shed light about who was killed. It’s always forgotten, too. Killings have been going on for centuries when it comes to black people just for what they look like. With that, I wanted to remind these people, these people are humans who are killed just for their skin complexion. Assimilation speaks to how black men have to change their appearance when they leave their communities to look less like a criminal.
Shredded: Why the name "Brotha"?
King: There’s a song by Angie Stone, it’s called "Brotha" and in the song she says:
“He's misunderstood (yeah)
Some say that he's up to no good around the neighborhood
But fo' your information
A lot of my brothers got education (now check it)
You got ya wallstreet brotha, ya blue collar brotha
Your down for whatever chillin' on the corner brother
A talented brotha, and to everyone of y'all behind bars
You know that Angie loves ya”
That song itself inspired me because she’s telling the truth and using her voice as a singer. When I heard that I thought that was so true and more people need to know that black men have educations, and so I thought this is my form. In a way it was a reaction to this statement.
Shredded: What inspired you to start this project?
King: I’ve always been aware of the problems in our society, it came to me being a kid and my mom having to tell me to put certain things on when it comes to going out. I remember I was going to my friend’s house at 9 o’clock at night and I would put my hoodie on and she told me that I shouldn’t put the hoodie on because I’ll look scary to other people. “Change your shirt.” I see that she’s saying that now as a way for me to be safe going outside of my community. It’s crazy too because I have a brother and my father, I’ve always been super worried...Me being worried and hearing my brother telling me his experiences on the phone and going I can’t do anything about it, I only wish that people didn’t pay attention to what they were conditioned to believe.
My brother, just based off him being dark skinned they think he’s a horrible person but at the end of the day he cried. At the end of the day he gets heartbroken when someone breaks up with him. And he laughs and has a family that cares for him, he has sisters that care for him and the fact that he’s sad and he tells me stories of “I don’t understand why this lady felt scared when I walked past her,” in his voice you can hear his sadness but he’s trying to hide it. And when it came to this exhibition, I wish I could tell my brother “you can tell me what’s wrong, you can cry about this...I want this exhibition to be dedicated to people who have experienced this and feel like they can’t express themselves. And when it comes to judging, people forget that black men are human and that they have feelings. I want this exhibition to be a reminder that these are humans...It’s so important to reminded that everyone is human.
Shredded: Is this also about gender roles?
King: I think there are three things that work here, too. With this project I started small with black men but I want to go into people of color...I also wanted this to be a way for black men to express themselves because with communities in general and how society is constructed a man is not able to express how he feels. They have to hide, or when it comes to feelings like being sad, being hurt and upset over certain things. I wanted it to act like a safe space, which is where the spoken word comes in. And the jazz performance, all forms of expression for them to get together to say we’re all men, we’re black, we’re all marginalized. We’re all able to come together and say that we’re sad about what’s going on in our society.
Shredded: What have you incorporated in this gallery to help express that?
King: The mediums that I brought together are photography, a book – I’m going to say a book specifically and not writing because it’s a combination of different kind of works. I feel that was so important because a lot of gallerists might say don’t exhibit a book but I think this book is so important, it’s a treasure because it has more expression by black men. I have a print installation and a video piece. And I also think it’s super important for the opening night to have great spoken word and music because that further emphasizes: all types of expression are art.
Shredded: How do you want the audience to experience this?
King: I have three takeaways for this show. I want first for the audience to feel that they can express themselves, that you should cry and crying is normal. And that goes for black men and in general, and people who are marginalized in general. I also want people to leave this space and remember to not judge. When you’re walking by someone they have a family, they have kids, they have sisters. If they seem scary, recognize that you’re thinking that they’re scary. And question why you’re thinking that they’re scary. After questioning, realize that they’re not scary.
Shredded: How do you feel about your first exhibition?
King: I feel great actually. I’ve had people who said thank you for having this exhibition because it’s needed and one step when it comes to progression in this world. I was telling one lady that I want my curatorial practice to be a form of activism. I know I have the ability to connect both, let’s say, rich upper class people who automatically are in a situation where they start to judge people, and have the ability to connect them to my community. Bringing them together, teaching these rich people and people that do judge to not judge and that these people are people. And bringing my community together – we all know this is a problem, let’s talk about it and let’s cry.
Shredded: Why is combining art and activism important to you?
King: One artist might think they’re the only artist working on this kind of theme, but bringing these different artists together they now know that they’re all working on this thing together. It strengthens the movement and having a voice in this society. And art is an expression, I’m just an advocate for expression and expressing yourself.
"Brotha" runs through Aug. 5 to Aug. 30 at The Overlook Place.
Contact Ashley King at firstname.lastname@example.org for a personal tour of the exhibition.
Photo gallery courtesy of Jenn Elise. Contact Jenn at email@example.com.
Contact Alexa by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.