It began with a record exchange, but virtually, in true pandemic style.
About a year ago, Chaka Mkali, the musician, artist and racial justice trainer also known as I Self Devine, was introduced to Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Gabe Ritter.
"I have an acute knowledge of dub" — a stripped-down, reverb-heavy style of reggae — "but Gabe was sending me stuff I hadn't seen," Mkali said during a recent visit to Mia.
"Chaka has all the connections," Ritter chimed in, "but then he was sending me music through Instagram and he was like, 'I think this is your jam.' It was an OG pressing of Barrington Levy's 'Shaolin Temple.' "
Their deep dive into music led to "Rituals of Resilience," an audiovisual show at Mia centered on artists of the African diaspora, with a soundtrack from Mkali's new album of the same name. Bring headphones, then scan a QR code on the gallery wall so you can hear Mkali's music on your device as you cruise through the show.
The walls are painted black to complement the soundscape. There's a mystical feeling swirling around the 28 mostly two-dimensional artworks from Mia's collection.
"Minnesota," a painting by New York artist Jordan Casteel that shows a Black man on a subway car wearing a neon yellow MINNESOTA hat, greets viewers in the first gallery. Minneapolis-based Leslie Barlow's figurative painting of her grandmother Ellen reclining on a couch ensures that local artists are represented.
The exhibition is part of a Mia initiative to acquire more art representing the African diaspora. (Works by Black or African artists account for about 3% of the museum's permanent collection.)
The show includes two pieces that were in "Mapping Black Identities," a 2019 Mia show that focused exclusively on Black artists.
There's "Shelves for Dynamite," a triptych of three Black men posing, wearing white shirts, by English painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. "False Start," a hulking, luscious 7- by 17½-foot painting by British-Guyanese artist Frank Bowling, is a world map in which all the continents and oceans are bathed in a hazy peach-orange. Africa and Australia are highlighted in white and South America is outlined in black. Europe and North America are hardly visible.
The wall labels include lyrics from Mkali's album as well. Positioned next to Yiadom-Boakye's painting is a sample from the song "I Feel It":
Related to the physical
/Feeling every emotion/ literal/the motion
Similar to floating/over land and ocean open
Sleepwalking and empathetic
The museum sought to continue expanding on the foundation it created with "Mapping Black Identities."
Elisabeth Callihan, head of multigenerational learning at Mia, suggested that Ritter and Mkali connect because they are both from Los Angeles. Mkali had intersected with museum staff in 2017 when New York artist Aliza Nisenbaum visited Mia as an artist-in-residence and connected with people at Hope Community, a nearby neighborhood nonprofit where Mkali is director of organizing and community building.
The focus of the exhibit is community building, a point stressed by both Mkali and Ritter. When they started talking about the show, George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police had not yet happened. The show was never intended as a response to the events that shook the world.
Mkali was interested in blurring the lines between community and institution.
"Growing up in Los Angeles during the gang-riddled, crack-infested, crime-heavy Carter and Reagan eras, I was raised by parents who were revolutionaries, organizers, artists and activists involved in the Black Power struggle," he wrote in an essay for the show. "My orientation of art and culture has always been grounded as a form of resistance, subversion, storytelling and liberation."
Mkali views his partnership with Mia as the "Art of Radical Collaboration" — a way of shifting power by re-examining the dynamics that exist between nonprofits and institutions in the community.
"We are in a real interesting time societal-wise, spiritually," he said. "To be able to have a place and a space to re-examine and bring things to the forefront, not as an afterthought but in terms of the initial reading, is special."
To create the album — which features such notable guests as the Lioness, Tish Jones, Muja Messiah and Greg Grease — Mkali said he approached it on his own terms.
"I wanted to focus on faces ... not in a voyeuristic way, but to immerse," he said. "When you are dealing with racism and things of that nature, it doesn't live in the policy of history, it lives in the body and how it's held."
Mkali received 8- by 11-inch pictures of each artwork in the show. Rather than interpreting the images, he spent time researching each artist, and noticed themes emerging, such as the movement of bodies from home to foreign lands.
From there he could find "places to connect my lived experience, and that's when it became ours," Mkali said. The rest of it came together like one would cook a meal, he said, ensuring that the rice would be done at the same time as everything else.
For Ritter, the process was eye-opening.
"I've never had to put myself into another person's head space in the way that I have, to translate what Chaka was doing into kind of what the institution does," he said. "That was definitely a learning experience and growing experience."
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437
Rituals of Resilience
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thu.-Sun., through Feb. 27.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 S. 3rd Av.
Admission: Free. Reserve tickets at artsmia.org or call 612-870-3000.