Two exhibits at the Verge Center for the Arts explore the black experience in striking and unsettling ways
There’s an eerie song flowing through the Verge Center for the Arts in Sacramento, one almost reminiscent of terror. On it, the voice is deep, but somehow childlike. The lyrics repeat, but it’s nearly impossible to remember anything said. Still, the music creates a feeling that you’re trapped in a never-ending cycle of trauma, no matter how hard you fight to get out.
It’s unsettling, yet it’s somehow the perfect background noise to play through the room as part of the dual showcases currently on exhibit: Kumasi Barnett’s The Amazing Black-Man and Tavarus Blackmon’s Exquisite Diversion.
The two shows, which run through February 28, stand in stark contrast to one another. Barnett’s is a series of reimagined comic books with black superheroes who are simultaneously the main protagonist and antagonist. The exhibit by Blackmon, whose artist name “Blackmonster” stems from how black people have been historically viewed, comprises several psychedelic installations and includes the unsettling audio.
Liv Moe, Verge’s executive director, says each installation represents related but parallel paths.
“The two of them are exploring things and in kind of similar personal explorations of race and identity and things like that, but in totally different ways,” Moe says.
Yet the two exhibits play off each other’s strengths well. Where Barnett’s comics, despite their playful origins as made-up heroes with powers, offer a more visceral and contemporary look into the black experience, Blackmon’s work, filled with colorful imagery and outlines of gingerbread men, feels more as though it’s inviting viewers to be understood.
Despite their differences, the two share a common theme: The American experience.
On the surface, Barnett’s work may appear as merely an artist’s rendering of famous Marvel and DC superheroes as black men. But it’s more than that—it’s a metaphorical representation of what it means to be black in America.
Black people in America, including this writer, often have cynical thoughts when “officer-involved shooting” is part of a headline. “Are they dead?” one might ask. If not, then the person was likely white. If yes, then the black person killed is sure to have his or her reputation dragged through the mud. This reality has exerted major influence over Barnett’s work.
“I don’t have to come up with anything,” he said in a phone interview from Chicago. “I’ve actually cut off cable TV altogether because it’s all too real. It’s us. Every event is a painting.”
There are three parts to Barnett’s work. There’s a Superman wearing a Confederate flag from the Action Comics series (newly dubbed “Racist Comics"), whose main adversaries seem to be a progressive future full of children learning not to be racist, white people losing their privilege and everyone realizing the real villain is the one most thought to be a hero.
Barnett’s take on the Incredible Hulk is almost too real—a large black man who faces the news media in constant battles not to be portrayed as “The Incredible Thug.”
These characters force us to reimagine stereotypes and other long-held notions, Moe says. “Think about each of them in context, like whether it’s the Hulk or Spiderman,” she said. “Like if you took those superheroes and you made them at their core something else, like especially a non-white character, then how does that change the concept of them being a hero?”
Then there is the exhibit’s title character. Barnett started his The Amazing Black-Man series in 2015 following Baltimore’s uprising in reaction to the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police. Gray was killed after officers failed to secure him in the back of a paddy wagon just a few minutes from where Barnett’s dad lived.
Instead of leaving New York and heading home to join the protests, he opted to destroy his comic book collection—a decision that would confuse (and often enrage) comic book fans and be dismissed by art critics.
It’s a theme that permeates throughout the series—police versus black men. From Baltimore to Sacramento, the black experience with police is often the same, and it’s what Barnett puts into his work despite the pain and emotion.
“Sometimes I wish that I could go back to [painting] abstract, man,” he said. “There’s a safety to [abstract]. It’s like when you’re in college or getting your master’s [degree]. This is more real.”
For Blackmon, the inspiration behind his art is as complex as the art itself. The recent UC Davis graduate and Provost Fellow explores domesticity, homelessness, mass shootings and growing up black in America.
Along with the audio component of the show, Blackmon’s visual art uses colorful imagery reminiscent of the Funk movement, pulling observers closer to the already oversized canvases.
But the art is deceptive. The initial expectation that the work might be playful is gone the moment you step closer. That play on the Funk movement is why Moe wanted to showcase his work alongside Barnett’s.
“He took this very white centric art movement from this region in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and he’s contemporizing it and he’s putting his own personal history into it,” Moe says.
Of the two shows, Blackmon’s is more immersive, requiring the viewer to experience it in full—from the unnerving sounds to the gingerbread-man chalk outlines on the floor.
“That’s directly based on my experience as an African-American,” Blackmon says. “I was having to be aware of my surroundings when I see a police officer. I think women in the community have to deal with the same thing, dealing with violence from men. I think immigrants also feel the same way now with the proliferation of ICE crackdowns.
“I think the majority of the population in America now is very cognitive of this because of the political climate and I really wanted to encapsulate that.”