‘Black History IS History’: Portland show spotlights art that reflects the Black experience

“I’ve always done art,” says Daren Todd. “But I never thought I could make a career out of it.” However, in a pivot inspired by the pandemic, Todd has moved beyond his former focus on music to embrace visual arts, and working as a curator.

The most recent example of Todd’s efforts as a curator, “Black History IS History,” is a group exhibition by regional Black artists on display at the Multnomah Arts Center in Southwest Portland. The show was curated by Todd and Steph Littlebird, this year’s guest leaders of the MAC Gallery Committee.

The Multnomah Arts Center is part of Portland Parks & Recreation, and, in addition to visual arts exhibitions in its gallery space, the center offers arts education programs, performance events, and more.

The Multnomah Arts Center Association is an all-volunteer organization that offers scholarships, and other activities intended to support equity and access to arts education and other community engagement at the arts center.

Daren Todd

Daren Todd is, with Steph Littlebird, co-curator of the “Black History IS History” exhibit at the Multnomah Arts Center Gallery show.

“I think right now, a lot of people are thinking about diversity in the arts, and changing the representational pool,” says Todd. “Being a Black, transgender man, I go out of my way to look for the media that represents us. In most people’s everyday life, they don’t necessarily meet people like me, or know people like me.”

As a young person, Todd, now 32, says, “If I had seen more representations of myself in the arts world, I would think, ‘That’s possible,’ to pursue art as a career. My goal is to just try and think about the next generation, and to include more people like me, more queer people, more Black people.”

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Megan Hatch, Multnomah Arts Center gallery specialist, writes in an email that each year, two regional artists from communities that have been under-represented or misrepresented in the Western art world are invited to partner with the arts center gallerist to act as jurors of the annual open call, and then pairing the selected artists for exhibitions.

“They are also invited to select a theme for an annual group exhibition, and to curate that show with the operational support of the gallerist,” Hatch writes. “In this way, their expertise and leadership shapes the MAC exhibition program each year.”

“Beast Sister,” a work by artist Mahma Jaguar, is among the works included in the “Black History IS History” exhibit at the Multnomah Arts Center Gallery.

In a statement accompanying the arts center exhibition, which runs through Sept. 2, Todd says, “We are living in a time where our history is being erased, distorted, and ignored on many levels – through our education system, in the courts, and in the media. As artists, we find ourselves in a unique position. At a time when the academicians, historians, reporters, and others are being silenced, I believe we have an opportunity to use our work to express and preserve what is being erased. ‘Black History IS History’ creates a space for Black artists from the Pacific Northwest to reflect on the Black experience and to use their work in the continued fight for Black civil rights.”

Todd’s co-curator, Littlebird, is also an artist, curator and writer who is a member of Oregon’s Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes. Her resume includes such projects as curating “This IS Kalapuyan Land,” a reframing of what had been an existing exhibit that reflected stereotypical notions about Native people. That exhibit has been displayed at the Five Oaks Museum and Pittock Mansion in Portland, and was also featured in a segment that aired on the “PBS NewsHour” program.

As Littlebird said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive earlier this year, for too long, Native American culture hasn’t been appropriately honored. Instead, she said, dismissive messages have been sent by “fine arts institutions that don’t regard our work as fine art, or history museums that don’t regard our history as valid unless they say it’s valid.”

Related: Oregon’s Steph Littlebird on new book and exhibit about Native resilience: ‘I want children to know this history’

Todd is a muralist, illustrator and designer, and, as the owner of Art Larger Than Me, he has also worked with commercial clients. His focus on visual arts came about, he says, in part because of the pandemic.

When he first moved from California to Portland in 2017, Todd says, he largely concentrated on music, performing in venues around Portland. But when COVID lockdowns shuttered performance spaces in 2020, Todd redirected his creative vision, and focused on painting murals and other works, while also learning about digital art design.

In collaborating with Littlebird on the arts center shows, Todd says one of their goals was to showcase a range of artists. The “Black History IS History” community group exhibit features work by Nyasha Madamombe, a multidisciplinary artist who was raised in Zimbabwe, and whose work, as she has said, “investigates human connections and my relationship with my present world, via the ancient Zimbabwean world of my ancestors; Ancestors who exist now only in traditions, stories, artifacts, and through me and my experience in new worlds. I am guided by the ancient African philosophy of Hunhu/Ubuntu which is the essence of that which makes us human: our compassion and connection to each other, for ‘I am who I am because we all are.’”

Alice Price’s “Give Him Roses Without Thorns” is among the works included in the “Black History IS History” exhibit at Multnomah Arts Center Gallery.

Central pieces in the exhibit include busts sculpted by Madamombe, in which the figures are adorned with beads or facial markings. The show includes other pieces, including a cut paper collage, “The Very Last Time We Touched,” by Nia Musiba, featuring a figure with a broken heart, and arms reaching in from either side of the image; colorful paintings by Raphael El Khalif; an art quilt made from Ghanaian and West African wax print fabric, called “Jambalaya,” by LaVerne Lewis; and a mixed-media assemblage by J’reyesha Brannon, called “Black Liberation,” a box-like object with an exterior panel that has text supposedly depicting portions of a person’s brain, with areas labeled “AFRO-CENTRIC,” “DREAM,” “STRUGGLE,” “FREEDOM,” “FAMILY,” and more.

In terms of what he wishes visitors may experience at the art center gallery, Todd says, “I really hope people take the time to be present with the work, to empathize with where the artists are, and what their world might look like. I’m hoping for an exchange of understanding.”

— Kristi Turnquist

503-221-8227; [email protected]; @Kristiturnquist

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