Ambitious co-curators Herman Milligan and Howard Oransky set out to create a comprehensive group exhibition that paints a portrait of the Black American experience through photography. Their massive exhibition, "A Picture Gallery of the Soul," which opened last week at the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash Gallery, includes work by 111 artists, including 15 from Minnesota.
"We're showing you, in a way, the 360 degrees, as best as we can, of this Black American experience," said Milligan, who collects art and serves on many arts advisory boards in the Twin Cities. "Many of these photographers are recent immigrants — some from Jamaica, Cuba, Africa, or the people have grown up in the U.S. and taken African names — but each and every one of them have taken the art form in order to tell a story relative to this African-American experience through their own eyes."
The oldest original vintage photograph in the show is an 1883 tintype, and the newest work was printed just two years ago. Famous photographers like Dawoud Bey, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Rashid Johnson mix with emerging Twin Cities artists like Black queer photographer Nance M. Musinguzi, Jovan C. Speller, Mara Duvra, as well as artists of the broader Black diaspora. The show's broad concept intends to make space for all artists involved.
"The idea of soul is not conceptual — it is the fluid intersection between past, present and future. It is evidentiary," writes Deborah Willis, New York University, in the exhibition catalog. She notes that the show brings together photographers and artists whose work can "construct new narratives about moments in history," and that this exhibition "is ultimately about unpacking the idea of what soul means to the artists and the curators."
This open-endedness allows visitors to roam about, letting themselves be drawn to whatever strikes them. In the middle gallery there is a lounging area where people can flip through the exhibition catalog, listen to a curated selection of jazz music, or just take a break.
Rashid Johnson's "Self-Portrait With My Hair Parted Like Frederick Douglass," 2003, is an homage to the great intellectual. The title for the show actually comes from Douglass' "Lecture on Pictures," delivered in Boston in 1861, where he theorized on photography as a documentary tool for society, saying "rightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted."
The show's earliest physical work is an 1883 tintype from the pioneering Goodridge Brothers Studio, where the three brothers worked in daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, stereoscopic images and panoramic photos. Kris Graves' series, "A Bleak Reality," jumps to the present, documenting sites where police killed innocent Black men including Philando Castile and Michael Brown.
Other images conjure the uncanny, like Allison Janae Hamilton's "Sisters, Wakulla County, FL," 2019, of two young girls in white dresses, somewhere in the swampy forest. Los Angeles-based portrait photographer Bobby Holland's 1981 picture of "Earth, Wind & Fire" is one of example of his 30-plus years photographing Hollywood entertainers. The pictures of John F. Glanton, photographer for local African American newspaper the Minneapolis Spokesman, show visitors images from the Black press in the 1940s.
Milligan, who served on the Walker Art Center's Community Advisory Committee and was involved with Milkweed Editions as it co-created Open Book, is a huge supporter of the arts in the Twin Cities. Oransky became the Nash Gallery's director in 2011, and previously worked at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Walker, where he and Milligan met.
The idea for this exhibition began in 2014 after Oransky received a tip about photographer Louis Draper from one of his University of Minnesota colleagues, and Milligan joined the project in 2016. It was slated to open in 2020, but the pandemic delayed it.
Although Oransky and Milligan didn't start out with thematic preconceived notions for the show, some emerged.
Milligan mentioned photographer Bill Gaskins' pair of diptych prints from his series "The Cadillac Chronicles," of Black men caring for their Cadillac cars.
"The show really reflects the 'normality' or the everyday life of the [Black] American," Milligan said.
A Picture Gallery of the Soul
Where: Katherine E. Nash Gallery, 405 21st Av. S., Mpls.
When: Ends Dec. 10. Public reception Thu., 7-9 p.m.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
Info: 612-624-7530. For full program schedule, visit https://cla.umn.edu/art/galleries-public-programs/katherine-e-nash-gallery