Nestled inside the Valparaiso University Center for the Arts (VUCA) sits the Brauer Museum of Art, a hidden gem that provides a world-class art experience for the Valpo community free of charge. Nearly 200 students, faculty, staff and visitors flocked to the Brauer to be one of the first to see the “Celebrating Black Artists” exhibition this past Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day on Jan. 16. 

Brauer Director Jonathan Canning has been curating the exhibit since he was hired at the start of the fall 2022 semester. He wanted this exhibit to be enjoyed by the Valpo community for longer than simply MLK Day.

“[The exhibit] grew out of the MLK Day committee meetings that I started going to when I first arrived here. I wanted the Brauer to be part of the day,” Canning said. “Once we discussed what could happen here, with all that effort, [we figured] it’s got to last longer than a day. We essentially agreed that we’d run up to the first of April, just about Easter.”

The exhibit loosely tells the story of how the definition of Black art and Black artists has changed over time, featuring works from artists both local and widespread, trained and self-taught. The majority of the pieces are from the Brauer’s permanent collection as well as Michael Chikeleze’s personal collection. Chikeleze is the University Chair in Values-Based Leadership and an associate professor of leadership communication.

“What [has been] understood as Black art has changed over the decades. At one point it was considered to be untrained folk art coming out of Black communities largely in the South. In the beginning of the 20th century, it was art that spoke to the experience of African-Americans in America, and now it’s much broader with artists claiming the influence of tribal art in Africa but often [creating] a melding,” Canning said. “You have artists that just want to be artists, in a sense, not necessarily commenting on the Black experience—that particularly comes in the second half of the 20th century when abstraction becomes [a] powerful motif in Western art … Essentially, the way the exhibition is layed out is to draw attention to these themes and broader influences in what is now termed Black art.”

One such work in the exhibit is Kara Walker’s painting “no world,” which Canning observes as telling an ambiguous story of the horrors of enslavement.

“[Walker’s] imagery tends to focus on the slave experience in the United States,” Canning said. “We’ve got a slave ship being born across the Atlantic, and it’s quite enigmatic who all these characters are. Are the hands holding up the ship to protect it or are they the hands of the storm that are tossing it? Is this female form a protective symbol or is it representative of the many people who died crossing the Atlantic?”

The exhibit also features art from other notable artists such as Richard Hunt, Prophet Blackmon, Ernie Barnes, Dawoud Bey and Kerry James Marshall. The works take a variety of forms, including paintings, draped canvas, photography and sculptures.

Overall, Canning praised the Brauer’s permanent collection as striving to celebrate Black art.

“There’s been this move since George Floyd’s murder and the reaction to that [in which] museums have scrambled because their collections have been so white,” Canning said. “There’s a limited number of Black artists here, but the Brauer has been collecting them since early on and they were acquired because their significance in the history of American art was recognized from the start … so this isn’t a last minute rush to introduce Black artists to the collection.”

After Easter break, a new show surrounding the concept of time will replace the “Celebrating Black Artists” exhibit.

“The Institute of Liturgical Studies has a conference [April 17-19] addressing time,” Canning said. “So [the Brauer will try] and work with that theme, primarily with our own collection in the Brauer.”

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