The Museum of the African's Experience in AmericaThe work of Biko curated by Abigail DeVille
601Artspace, 88 Eldridge Street
Sept 11 - Nov 14, 2021
From curator Abigail DeVille:
"Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God."- Martin Luther King Jr.
BIKO is a lover. Lover of all things Black and a preserver of the stories held within the body of the Black experience in America. Biko was born in the Hill district in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s to parents who migrated from Virginia and the Carolinas to work in the steel mills. Biko's father was a laborer at U.S. Steel's Homestead Works. He is a part of the continuum of Africans who forcibly arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619—telling the American story and preserving the memories of those he has encountered on his journey.
Biko and I share the same artistic DNA, using the impulse of history as the most critical and elusive material to wield. He is a scavenger for objects that testify to the indignities experienced by so many Black people in these united states. Both of us search through the archeological record, looking for clues that point us to deeper truths--about ourselves and about the people we care about. It has been an honor to spend time with his exhaustive work. He is constantly shifting in his approach and material usage but still cobbling together a truth more reflective of the experiential knowledge we carry in our hearts, bones, and breath.
Biko began making art in the 1990s while living in Omaha, Nebraska. He was involved with the Black Rainbow Gallery that showcased Black art. During this period, Biko met and was inspired by Oran Z Belgrave, the founder of the now-shuttered Black Facts & Wax Museum in Los Angeles. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, his first museum there was called Black Americana. Biko volunteered there and gave tours to school children. Oran Z amassed a three million-object collection starting in the 1980s. Madame CJ Walker was an early inspiration for him, and a book about her planted the seed for the collection and his entrepreneurial career in the hair and beauty industry. He created Oran's Wonder Weave in the early 80s, and it provided the means for him to collect. Oran Z's collecting methodology is "anything and everything for blacks, by blacks, against blacks." Z wanted visitors of his museum to reckon with the racist history of these objects. He also wanted to show kids in the neighborhood Black success stories. Z says "We've got to preserve the whole story, and if you can't see it, it don't exist."
Heading back to Pittsburgh in 1995, Biko began a collection himself. He combed regional flea markets before dawn in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. As a result, Biko accumulated images, inspirations, objects, and Biko's collages of historical figures and events. His practice is rooted in community and the retelling of American history through artifacts of evidence. He held workshops for children sharing specific objects within his collection and creating installations of artifacts for schools, hospitals, and community organizations for many years. "I want people to know what actually happened in America," Biko says. "I'm trying to get people to try to understand it."
The Museum of the African's Experience at 601Artspace is Biko's first exhibition in New York City. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer confronts the legacy of racism through Biko's curation of historical images and objects. Challenging the ways we perceive time, this space is a pause, a blank space in which to contemplate the many holes and portals in American history. The light illuminates the darkness at the heart of the American experiment and celebrates the inextinguishable beauty of African Americans.
Moving through his collection of images and objects, you enter the love space. Papier-mâché portraits of Biko's mother (Washer Woman), community members (Each One Teach Two), a guitar player (Why I Sing the Blues), and snippets of black life are in distinct contrast to the stereotypical depictions of mammies and watermelon eaters in the museum's storefront. Moments of care, uplift, education, creative expression radiate from these love-hewn objects. The papier-mâché sculptures reference the role of paper as a means of recording history by destroying it and reshaping it into a visual representation in contrast to historical lies. Biko is asking the viewer to ask again. Ask again.
On the walls in the blue gallery is an encyclopedic expression of Adinkra language works, paintings of ancestral deities, Tupac, Metal Suns with Afros moving in and out of abstraction, using the material language found in yard work practices and the spiritual striving for excellence. His works tell the story of a community in complex ways and challenge how we understand history-making. We are all of it at once: ugly, inaccurate, indescribably beautiful, and filled with equal measures of love and despair. Yet we are reaching out to one another and our ancestors. Pittsburgh artist and comrade Tina Williams Brewer describes Biko as a folklorist.
How can we understand ourselves when we have been told so many lies?
Biko's most recent works are Adinkra symbols on diagonal canvases that represent the diamond star found all over the south that served as an emblem of safe houses on the underground railroad. In African American yard work, the diamond eye is the all-seeing eye of God. These works taken together are the breath of life examining the age-old question: what is truth?
There is a light-filled portal displaying historical images of Pittsburgh and specifically the Hill district of Biko's childhood on the gallery's far wall. The Hill district is the birthplace of playwright August Wilson, whose cycle of ten plays speaks specifically to the vibrancy and texture of this place in the 20th century. Photographer Teenie Harris documented in his lifetime over 70,000 images of Black life in Pittsburgh. These images testify to the actual truth of a people whose indomitable spirit has carried them through five centuries of filth and lies. Light can't be hidden or absorbed. For decades, scientists believed black holes eviscerate matter, yet the recent discovery of light behind a supermassive black hole defies what we thought to be true.
"We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real." - James Baldwin from Creative America, Ridge Press, 1962.
Image: Biko, Twas the Night Before Easter, 1996, papier-mâche, acrylic nails, hot comb, wood base, iron, found objects.