A pair of Northern Arizona University (NAU) art education students brought an all-Black art show to Heritage Square Friday as part of the Flagstaff First Friday ArtWalk.
The exhibit, titled “Onyx: An All-Black Art Exhibition,” started as a class project, which its organizers, Stephanie Thompson and Zeke Hodo, expanded to serve as a showcase for local Black artists and history.
“I really want them to see a different side of Flagstaff that they never knew was there,” Hodo said of his hopes for visitors of the show. “I want them to know that we exist and that, while we are in the minority, there are still many talented Black artists here in this town. For me, it’s just raising awareness and really trying to uplift the other Black artists here. Hopefully they can watch the documentary and really take it in and see Flagstaff in a different light, because unfortunately a lot of Black history gets whitewashed or revised, erased. So it’s really important that we maintain the way history really was.”
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The project for a class taught by Janeece Henes — who provided organizational support for Onyx — was to research cultural competency, meaning teaching with cultural awareness. Thompson explained that cultural competency can help teachers connect with their students. In the case of art education, it can also provide more context for the artists and their work.
For their project, Hodo and Thompson decided to focus on artists of color, later narrowing the scope to Black artists specifically.
“We really wanted to bring shine exclusively to these artists,” Thompson said. “It’s a super underrepresented group of artists, and we felt like, while inclusivity is always the goal, sometimes exclusivity really does help to highlight a narrative that’s not being circulated as frequently.”
After deciding on their focus, they then spent most of the semester organizing the exhibit, finding artists, sponsors, and arranging and preparing for the showing in Heritage Square.
The show’s prize money, a total of $300 for the Best in Show and People’s Choice Awards, was provided by NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera. College of Arts and Letters Dean Christopher Boyer also donated funding, while Ricardo Guthrie and Deborah Harris assisted with the historical aspect of the show.
Artists with work featured in the show included Grace Castellanos, Malik Bossett, Philip Gabriel Steverson, Shaunté Glover and Hodo. Their artwork comes in a mix of mediums, from painting to photography to sculptures to digital art.
In addition to the the visual art, Onyx also included a mini-documentary and artist statements that expanded on the central ideas. Hodo’s art is included, along with his work designing the fliers and overall aesthetic of the show. He is a digital artist, whose work is influenced by pop culture and his life and includes many-layered portraits.
“A lot of the pieces I make revolve around the documentation of my life and my mind,” he said, “things I’m going through, emotions. I take a lot of inspiration from, I’d say as a blanket statement, pop culture as a whole, lots of music, shows and other things.”
He added: “A staple of my work is that it comes along with me, it grows up with me.”
He said these pieces take a lot of intricate work and, usually, the maximum number of layers allowed by Procreate, the software he uses to make them. One, which was displayed at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., took at least a month to complete.
Thompson said one of the main challenges with the exhibit was finding the talent.
“Finding all the artists in time, I think, was probably the hardest part,” she said. “ … There really is a limited pool of working and Black artists who are regularly producing and that’s their career … and then on the other end I think also there’s less representation.”
She cited an art show NAU had put on for Black History Month this year that wasn’t as well-attended, motivating her to execute this exhibit as much as possible. Momentum has already started in what is hoped will be a long chain, with the Onyx exhibit reshowing and ideas for other projects already underway.
Both Hodo and Thompson said much of what they learned from putting together the event was in the organizing process. While Thompson had past experience in curation, this was Hodo’s first time arranging an event.
“I definitely learned a lot about working with our team, delegating, things of that nature,” he said. “I really gained a passion for doing stuff like this, this is definitely something I want to do more. I definitely don’t want this to be a one-and-done thing. This was a really fun and positive experience for me despite whatever inconveniences or adversities we came across.”
Thompson said she learned about including service, social justice and community in her teaching. Her hopes for the show echoed with some of the original project’s intentions.
“We are bringing the shine to the Black arts space but I also want to humanize the artists,” she said. “I want people to come and maybe, had they not known that this was a Black art exhibit, they’d still be able to enjoy the art for what it is. Being able to have that cultural competency, to look past what’s physically in front of them and maybe begin to ask questions of themselves about the artist’s life about the impetus and inspiration for the work.”
She continued: “A big part of it is the historical context, because we have really prominent Black figures in our cultural tapestry here and we don’t talk about them enough. A lot of people don’t know who Wilson Riles or Cleo Murdoch [are]. There are several families that have been here for hundreds of years, and I think that’s a really important story to tell.”