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“Time(is)” celebrates care, community, and today’s Black art in Madison

A view of the "Time(is)" show in the gallery on the third floor of the Central Library in downtown Madison. The gallery is a long hallway; in the foreground, to the left, is a block of text printed on a wall introducing the exhibition. On the right are shelves of books associated with the exhibition. Prints and paintings stretch down the length of the gallery on either side.
A view of the “Time(is)” show in the gallery on the third floor of the Central Library in downtown Madison. The gallery is a long hallway; in the foreground, to the left, is a block of text printed on a wall introducing the exhibition. On the right are shelves of books associated with the exhibition. Prints and paintings stretch down the length of the gallery on either side.

The four-artist exhibition will run on the third floor of the Central Library through July 1.

Four Black artists with distinctive styles and widely varying life experiences come together for Time(is): An Exploration Of Black Art In Madison, an exhibit that immortalizes moments in time through visual and conceptual art pieces. Madison-based artists Alice Y. Traore, Simone Lawrence, Sharon L. Bjyrd, and Teena Wilder present their inimitable perspectives on craft and the sociopolitical circumstances that shape it. This exhibition showcases the variety of work Black artists are creating at a time when racial discrimination, police brutality, and mass incarceration are at the forefront of news headlines. As an act of resistance, these Black artists make space for themselves by taking part in the process of creation and showing that this art can strike a blow against cultural erasure and stand the test of time. The show runs through July 1 at the Central Library’s third-floor gallery.

Sophia Abrams, ​​the curator of the exhibition, is a senior at UW-Madison, who works at the university archives as a student historian. In this position, she created an oral history project on Black artists who went to the university. This piqued her interest to do more research on Black artists beyond the university and in the greater Madison community. “This exhibition reminded me that academia is not the only way for an artist to be an artist,” says Abrams in an interview with the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program, which curates art shows at the Central Library. 

In her research, Abrams showcases the long-term community that exists within the city, and outside the walls of the institution. This act of democratizing the writing of history allows for those at the margins to put to the forefront their personal narratives and make alternative sources for the historically white canon.

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Alongside all of the artworks in the show are also selections of books that were influential to the creative process of the artists. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were among the books on the shelf at the entrance of the exhibition. The booklist illuminates the motifs that interest the artists in the making of these multimedia art pieces. “It gives the audience a glimpse into their headspace and urges them in a new way to consider that art is a byproduct of everything around the artists,” Abrams tells Tone Madison

Unlike museums, where not all people feel welcome because they are traditionally white and elite spaces, public libraries are accessible, free, and open to the public. At the same time, people who come in can also check out books and be inspired. Inside this space, everyone can come as they are. This exhibition embraces that inclusive community spirit, inviting in viewers wherever they came from and whatever their background is.

“Every artist brought a different perspective into the exhibition,” Abrams says. At the same time, all of the pieces are rich in symbolism.

Sharon L. Bjyrd brings to the space vibrant acrylic paintings of Black folks in different settings. She frames them in mundane moments—just thinking or enjoying the Bahama breeze—and juxtaposes them with bright and colorful patterned backgrounds. “As a BIPOC living in spaces where we are underseen, it is a challenge to appreciate the beauty we maintain while we are struggling to be seen,” Bjyrd says. In this collection, Bjyrd shows a diversity of Black experiences and accentuates the beauty in the humdrum.

The painting "Big Hair, Don’t Touch" by Sharon L. Bjyrd shows a Black woman with natural hair, looking out from the painting at an angle.
“Big Hair, Don’t Touch” by Sharon L. Bjyrd. Photo by Robby Franklin Photography.

Carefully manipulating bright acrylics, Simone Lawrence paints famous Black figures who have been under the spotlight for decades, including Prince, Malcolm X, Chadwick Boseman, and Tupac and Biggie. These cultural icons all claimed their space in an industry that has traditionally undermined or excluded Black people—whether it be politics, the academy, or entertainment. “In most art spaces, Madison included, you don’t often see walls solely filled with Black art,” Lawrence says. “It was both humbling and empowering to be seen in a space where you often go unnoticed.”

In Teena Wilder’s written work “Things I took from my father, in writing,” they say, “I ask myself, as a black person – how am I going to survive? / As a queer body – will I see tomorrow, if I move today?” Wilder wrestles with the perpetual anxiety of staying alive in a world that is rife with violence. This theme also runs through with her mixed-media sculpture “Again; The thin lines between witness and actor.” Behind the piece’s hanging lengths of braided hair is a quote from James Baldwin: “The line which separates a witness from an actor is a very fine line indeed.” The broken demarcation of the sculpture points out that the differentiation between a witness and an actor is a blurry one, because these two roles are not mutually exclusive. When we are witnesses, our actions or non-actions are political. These social commentaries are present in all of Wilder’s exhibited work.

Teena Wilder’s "Again; The thin lines between witness and actor," a sculpture made of lengths of braided hair. It hands against a white wall on which a quote from James Baldwin, reading, "The line which separates a witness from an actor is a very fine line indeed," is rendered in wavy block letters.
Teena Wilder’s “Again; The thin lines between witness and actor.” Photo by Robby Franklin Photography.

In “3000 Ancestors Above Me,” Alice Y. Traore uses watercolors and colored pencils to show a woman who has her eyes closed and has tears streaming down her face with her head up toward the sky. The blue and gray color palette used for the background of the painting emphasizes the loneliness of existence. Traore incorporates a glimmer of hope into this piece through the presence of the main figure’s ancestor, who looks down at her as she cries with quiet abandon. Even in her despair, she is never completely alone. She will always be cared for by those who have gone before her.

The common denominator of all these pieces is how care and celebration take place in the presence of the community. “This is the most precious gift true love offers—the experience of knowing we always belong,” writes bell hooks in All About Love, one of the books inside the space. This exhibition was brought to fruition through a community of artists, curators, and librarians who cared for each other’s works and treated them with generosity and kindness. The grace that everyone extended toward one another in this show was an act of solidarity. Their selflessness was subversive, proving that when people come together, anything and everything that is beautiful is possible.

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