"Material Realities" exhibit uses space, objects to explore identity

January 18 through February 12, 2016, artists Nakeya Brown and Andrew Wilson are exhibiting their work in the RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery. The exhibit, titled Material Realities, explores the role objects play in the formation of identity and particularly focuses on the African American experience.

Brown’s photographs feature the albums of famous African American songstresses juxtaposed with beauty products, while Wilson’s work explores history through printed fabrics and handmade books and jewelry.

“The objects are a container for memory and a reliquary for the memory to live in,” Wilson said.

“Objects have these sort of cultural and social and racial and gendered ideas that come along with them. I really wanted to create these spaces of beauty and put Black women’s bodies at the center of them through objects,” Brown said.

Each collection also contains themes of gender, identity and community.

“Objects and people don’t exist separate of one another, and objects have a way of bringing people together,” Brown said. “Blow dryers and combs and rollers, these objects are activated by communities, by groups of people coming in and using them. In a way, I’m really interested in talking about the ways in which objects have shaped experiences for people.” 

The exhibit also provides space for people who don’t identify with the binary.

“I work with masculinity and Black maleness and Nakeya works more with femininity,” Wilson said. “They’re not separate or opposite of each other, but they do coexist, and I think we’re taught to believe it’s supposed to be the inverse. (This exhibit) is getting at the muddy, murky gray space in between … I identify as queer, so I’m definitely in the gray, murky area of sexuality … (In the exhibit, there is) space for folks who don’t conform to prescribed binaries, and they’re all in threes – three books. I think that has some really important meaning.”

Each artist creates a very different experience for the viewer.

Brown’s portion of the gallery features a collection of brightly colored photographs, and Wilson’s side works with cooler, more muted tones.

 “In creating a full-body experience, it implicates the viewer in a way that I think is site-specific. It starts to charge the space and that evokes more than just the objects in the space,” Wilson said.

While the two artists didn’t know each other prior to the exhibit, they feel the two collections complement each other well.

“I think in life we tend to think about things in poles, right? There’s space in between identities and in between people’s stories, and what I’ve really appreciated is that the Gallery is set up as the pole. What’s happening on each end is different but it’s not independent of each other,” Brown said.

Both artists are currently enrolled in MFA programs, Brown at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and Wilson at University of California, Berkeley.

During their week-long residency, Brown and Wilson visited classes, conducted workshops, and participated in My Brother’s Keeper. On Friday, January 22, they volunteered to travel to Flint and help distribute water to residents affected by the crisis.

This residency and exhibition represent the fifth annual RCAH Perspectives on African-American Experience: Emerging Visions program. After selecting artists from a national call for submissions, these events are scheduled to coincide with and celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at MSU.

Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block, photos by Samantha Kinjorski, Steve Baibak, and Katie Wittenauer.