This Central Library exhibition will be on display through Fall 2021.
Image: At the center of the Crowns In Chaos exhibition is a 10-foot mural that uses warm acrylic paint to vibrantly portray the closeness between two Black girls who are looking out and protecting each other. Photo by The Bubbler at Madison Public Library.
Above all else, we are human. We live at the mercy of others. This reminds us that tenderness is necessary. The exhibit Crowns In Chaos applies this basic human reality to an intimate look at the importance of Black sisterhood and the comfort it provides Black women through all of life’s chaos. It is the culmination of a collaboration between the students of Dear Diary (a mentoring program for Black and brown Madison high-school girls), the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program, and the artist Shiloah Symone Coley during the summer of 2021. It will run through the fall in the Central Library’s third-floor gallery.
At the center of the exhibition is a 10-foot mural that uses warm acrylic paint to vibrantly portray the closeness between two Black girls who are looking out and protecting each other. Thorny vines frame the two figures, and yet, amidst it all, they are able to be vulnerable. Beside the towering piece of art is a staticky audio recording of the artists’ statement, where Aviana, Kadence, Sariyah, Allycia, and Sydney, all students in the Dear Diary program, take turns declaring their manifesto with pride: “The mural means pretty much everything to [us].”
“I learned so much from the young folks that I worked with,” says Coley, who served as the lead artist for the project. “They drove this project with regards to the content that they wanted to see present in the mural.” Having worked closely alongside the girls, Coley believes that their agency must be centered. By using her expertise in journalism and writing, Coley helped the teens narrativize their truths into coherence. “I hear you more loudly than I hear myself sometimes,” Coley says to her mother in a conversation excerpt for “Grief is,” an experimental video animation that explores the distortion of time and space as a result of grief in everyday life. By doing so, she encourages the Dear Diary teens, who come from different high schools around Madison, to also hold space for each other’s struggles and moments of despair.
“It was powerful to see the girls take ownership over the mural and be proud of what they were doing,” says Carlee Latimer, Bubbler Program Assistant at MPL. “The mural connected everyone to each other in an organic way, and it was cool to see genuine friendships formed because of this.” Latimer, who planned the logistics of the exhibition, was amazed by the relationships the students formed with each other and Coley during the curation period. “Everybody let one another become their full selves,” Latimer says.
In their artist statement, the girls write, “We have created a safe space for Black girls and have given each other respect and appreciation for being ourselves.” The way in which these young Black women have continued to hold space for one another despite the oppressive systems that restrict and constrict their freedom is, to say the least, radical. “The darker the world is, the brighter we shine,” one of the girls writes during a generative writing exercise where they answer reflective questions about the definition of sisterhood. These statements of solidarity became the guide through which the girls created their mural.
Written on the far white wall is a question in bold black letters for guests to interact with: “How do we hold each other?” In this freedom space, the artists extend an invitation to express one’s self through the processing of questions that interrogate, with care, what tenderness truly is. “The human ordeal is very much so a collection of many things that make up a person,” Coley says. “And I believe there is power in the shared experiences that we have.”
In addition to the finished pieces in the gallery, much of the exhibit is also transparent about the communal process that defines it. All around the third-floor gallery are drafts of sketches, design inspirations, and writings the artists produced during the conceptualization stage. Coley encouraged the girls to write according to prompts that allow them to wrestle with their intersecting identities as Black women under a tyrannical state that disproportionately targets them. They even have a poster of community guidelines, which include respecting each other and one’s self, practicing self-love, being one’s self, honoring confidentiality, bringing no judgment, and vibing. It is heartwarming to witness the playfulness the students bring to this project.
Traditional narratives, which have been historically claimed by the victors, are now being rewritten by these young women at the margins. And so, community becomes a necessary space for healing, liberation, and care. Some of the works that inspired the exhibition are The Warmth Of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Syllabus: Notes From An Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry, Playing In The Dark by Toni Morrison, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and a number of Calvin & Hobbes books by Bill Watterson. These influences thematically wrestle with the painful truth of intersectional oppression while also attesting to the capacity of the subaltern for humanity and empowerment.
While standing alone in the quietness of the space on a Saturday afternoon, I felt the spirit of camaraderie that suffuses these works. On a notecard that asks gallery visitors to respond to the question “HOW DO WE HOLD EACH OTHER?” I wrote that we should hold one another with grace. All of the heart-wrenching events of last year reminded us that no matter where we come from, we all deserve unconditional love. People who’ve visited the exhibition so far have shared their longings for the kind of powerful support the artists are exploring here. “We, as humans, deserve to hold each other in high regard,” one visitor’s response says. “Sometimes holding someone means silence,” another person wrote. These viewers have clearly absorbed the show’s reminders that we are all equally made of flesh and are equally in need of compassion.
There’s more where this came from.
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