The student population at the School of the Art Institute is just 3 percent black. “It’s very frustrating,” says Da’Niro Elle Brown, a senior who studies sculpture, performance, and film. “People put you with the other black people. They assume every black person loves Kara Walker or Basquiat. During critiques, if you’re black, you feel like people are expecting something from you. People assume your work is about you being black and that they can’t ask questions because they can’t identify. It’s stifling. We want to define ourselves, not let the mass of the community or the school tell us who we are or about the work we do.”
Brown and her cohorts decided they needed to demonstrate to their community that there are lots of different ways of being black. And the best way to do that would be an art exhibit of black students’ work. They called it “De Nue,” a pun on the slang term “dat new new.” (The fake French made it sound more sophisticated and classy.) In order to avoid conflicts of interest and accusations that they were only choosing work by their friends, they recruited an outside jury of working artists and curators: Faheem Majeed, Aymar Jean Christian, Felicia Mings, and Erica Ross.
The process of getting the show together was difficult, Brown says, because she and her fellow curators, Brianna McIntyre and Janelle Anaya Miller, wanted to submit as complete and professional an application for gallery space as possible. “We didn’t want to come across as entitled,” she says. “We didn’t want to make it seem like we were saying, ‘You guys owe us this.'”
The process was complicated by the fact that six of the ten artists in the show hadn’t yet been selected by the jury when the curators submitted their proposal. But after a year of work, the exhibit, accompanied by a catalog in which the artists discuss their work, finally opened at the LeRoy Neiman Center Gallery last weekend with performances and an after-party. Four hundred people came. “I think they loved it,” Brown says. “We got a lot of positive feedback.”
The art in the show itself, Brown says, reflects a wide range of media, styles, and experiences. “You’ll see a lot of representation of the queer spectrum,” she says. “People reference their upbringing and families, and the communities they belong to now.”
Some of the works deal with bodies. Itunuoluwa Ebijimi’s Black Pinup Project is, as you might guess from its title, a collection of portraits of queer black people in sexy poses. Amina Ross’s video installation G(ui)ILDING shows, on three screens, a black woman covering her own body with glittery gold paint.
Others are more abstract. The centerpiece of Derrick Woods-Morrow’s Smooth Operator is an elaborate and complicated contract that sets the terms of sex with Woods-Morrow and grants him the right to share any information he learns from the signee. As you read the contract, you can listen in on headphones to a conversation between Woods-Morrow and a woman about the implications of such contracts and agreements, namely that people sign them without realizing the full ramifications of what they’re agreeing to.
Brown’s own contribution to the exhibition is a sculptural performance piece called Untitled. Only the sculpture element, pieces of an eight-foot by four-foot by four-foot box lined with oats, is on display, but during the opening the performer Antonio Robles stood in the box and acted out a series of gestures that reflected on black masculinity and femininity and what it means to be a black man today.
“We’re putting our voices into our work,” Brown says. “We’re vulnerable. Our friends and family are out there. It’s very important for other people to see them. It’s all under the umbrella of blackness.”
Brown herself is in two more shows this month, one of student work at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and a special exhibition of regional artists curated by Michelle Grabner at the stARTup Art Fair.
“I want to expand my voice as an artist and a young woman of color,” Brown says. “Part of my practice is accepting who I am. I use art to try to help expand that more. Instead of letting it bring me down, I push forward.”
“De Nue” runs through 9/25 at the LeRoy Neiman Center Gallery, 37 S. Wabash, and Gallery X, 280 S. Columbus, saic.edu.