Five Black Utahns talk about artworks in ‘Black Refractions’ that hold personal meaning

The exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is open until April 10.

(Marc Bernier | Photo courtesy of Kehinde Wiley, Roberts Projects, American Federation of Arts, and Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Kehinde Wiley, Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), 2001, oil on canvas. The Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum purchase made possible by a gift from Anne Ehrenkranz, 2002.10.14. © Kehinde Wiley.

As artist Matthew Sketch considers the well-dressed man in the painting “Eminence,” he’s reminded of the “imposter syndrome” he’s experienced in his own life. When dancer and educator Alexandra Barbier looks at “Repugnant Rapunzel,” an off-putting sculpture made from tires, she sees a reflection of her own struggle to accept her curly hair.

They are two of five Black Utahns who explain why certain works resonate for them in the latest exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Their commentaries offer starting points to the 100 pieces in “Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem.”

Summaries of their thoughts can be found below, along with photos of the artwork they describe. If you prefer to hear them speak, click on their names to listen to audio of their complete comments.

The exhibit, which includes pieces from almost 80 Black artists across the U.S., is open at the UMFA, 410 Campus Center Drive, through April 10. Due to COVID-19, tickets must be purchased in advance at UMFA.utah.edu. Admission prices range from $12.50 for kids to $15.95 for adults. Masks and social distancing are required. If you are unable to see the exhibit in person, the museum has set up a virtual viewing experience with a highlights video, a virtual town hall and a panel discussion on March 31.

(Marc Bernier | Photo courtesy of American Federation of Arts and Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Tom Lloyd, Moussakoo, 1968, aluminum, lightbulbs, and plastic laminate. The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of The Lloyd Family and Jamilah Wilson, 1996.11.

‘Moussakoo’ by Tom Lloyd

Flashing hexagons made with rows of industrial lamps in 1968.

Leslie D. Pippin, an experimental visual artist from East Texas who has lived in Utah for 20 years, says the rhythm of the colors in “Moussakoo” “is like that of jazz or a New York saxophone. I find this piece to not only represent Black America, but the American experience in general, as they are the same experience. Lloyd’s piece reminds me of driving down State Street or the Vegas Strip. Longing to be seen and trying to seduce in mesmerizing sparkle. ... When I look at the work, I find myself thinking about the machinery of advertising. Flashing, flashing and beckoning Americans to consume both the solidified and the ephemeral.”

(Adam Reich | Photo courtesy of American Federation of Arts and Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Jordan Casteel, Kevin the Kiteman, 2016, oil on canvas. The Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Acquisition Committee, 2016.37. © Jordan Casteel.

‘Kevin the Kiteman’ by Jordan Casteel

Oil on canvas, painted in 2016.

Meligha Garfield, director of the Black Cultural Center at the University of Utah, says this painting makes him think of his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. “When growing up in Rochester, I often felt the city was consistently in between seasons. We were always on the verge of something great, but not quite there. We wanted the big-city feel of New York City, but did not want its population density or taxes. ... The man in this piece signals that, with his winter clothes and kites that are often associated with the spring season. In a way, he’s a walking contradiction.

“... The man in this artwork represents a piece of me: someone who grew up poor in the cities of gray skies and organized crisis. He represents my drive for more and constantly thinking about my next season rather than the seasons before. It also reminds me of wearing clothes in the wrong season: Because of growing up poor, I often had to buy clothes out of season. His kites symbolize to me the various hats I’ve had to wear to transcend beyond my hometown. The amount of code switching and learning about myself. Always wanting to know how do I define myself, and how do others define me?”

(Photo courtesy of American Federation of Arts and Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Henry Taylor, how I got over, 2011, acrylic on canvas. The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg, 2013.11.1. © Henry Taylor.

‘how I got over’ by Henry Taylor

Acrylic on canvas, painted in 2011.

James Jackson III, founder of the Utah Black Chamber, says he grew up hearing the “staple” gospel song “How I Got Over,” released by Mahalia Jackson in 1951, in church. He says, “Hurdle after hurdle. Obstacle after obstacle. Barrier after barrier. Yet, we as a people, we got over. That’s what this picture says to me.

“The Black community has crossed so many hurdles since the song’s release. The majority of African Americans were living in a segregated world not having access to the same housing, education, health care and resources as white people. And here we are, 70 years later, not necessarily living in a segregated world, but still fighting that same fight for equity. But we’re making progress.

“.. We know what the finish line looks like, but we still haven’t made it far enough for it to come into view. But we continue to run. We continue to jump over the hurdles that lie in front of us. And when we reach that end, ‘our soul will look back and wonder, how we got over.’”

(Marc Bernier | Photo courtesy of Kehinde Wiley, Roberts Projects, American Federation of Arts, and Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Kehinde Wiley, Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), 2001, oil on canvas. The Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum purchase made possible by a gift from Anne Ehrenkranz, 2002.10.14. © Kehinde Wiley.

‘Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence)′ by Kehinde Wiley

Oil on canvas, painted in 2001.

Matthew Sketch, an artist from Houston who’s based in Salt Lake City, says, “I, too, have felt like a conspicuous fraud at some times in my life. I have wondered if I was capable of doing jobs that I was totally qualified for. It’s called ‘imposter’s syndrome’ and we almost all suffer from it at some point in life. Whenever this feeling has arisen inside of me, I reflect back to the successes that got me to the place where I am now, and I often consider the unsure nature of those actions. I calm myself by acknowledging that I am very much who my ancestors wanted to be, and I am empowered by the understanding that, with every move, I both embody and create cultural legacy.

“... I believe this is Kehinde’s depiction of a very human experience. An act of uncertainty and boldness in the same existence.”

(Nelson Tejada | Photo courtesy of American Federation of Arts, Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Chakaia Booker, Repugnant Rapunzel (Let Down Your Hair), 1995, rubber tires and metal. The Studio Museum in Harlem, gift of Friends and Family of Chakaia Booker, 1996.7. © Chakaia Booker.

‘Repugnant Rapunzel (Let Down Your Hair)’ by Chakaia Booker

Tires and metal, created in 1995.

Alexandra Barbier, a dancer and educator who lives in Salt Lake City, says she didn’t love the sculpture “Repugnant Rapunzel” when she saw it for the first time. She described it as “twisted, mangled, braided.” But then she realized she has also used those words to describe her own hair.

“Twisted like the wet strands that I separate into smaller sections to wind around each other after washing, conditioning, detangling, oiling, and moisturizing before I go to sleep. When I undo these twists in the morning, my curls will be poppin’, not matted or mangled the way they would be if I simply washed them then rested my head against my pillow. Braided like my hair five days after this process, when the curls have become flatter and less impressive and I give myself a crown of French braids.

“I think of Rapunzel’s long, blonde and luscious hair that looked like the hair of all the white girls I wanted to be in elementary school. Opposite of the go-to looks for Black girls like me — slicked-back buns formed around rolled-up socks; pigtail braids that have shrunken because that’s what curly hair does, secured by ponytail holders with large plastic balls; pressed edges and relaxed tresses that frizz uncontrollably after recess in the humid air of my Louisiana hometown.

“I began to cry, remembering the hatred I harbored for my hair until my 20s. Until I moved to New York and saw the afros, puffs, cornrows, fro-hawks, box and crochet braids, locs, and pineapple ponytails donned by confident, beautiful, proud Black women. They inspired me to finally ‘big chop’ my damaged, relaxed hair and go natural. To finally see and learn about the curl pattern that I was born with. To finally love it instead of constantly fight with it and destroy it.

“I don’t love this piece, at least not immediately. But I love it now that I realize it reminds me of my journey towards self-acceptance. I love it now that I realize it represents the labor that Black people exert to maintain healthy curls. I love it now that I see it as a rebellion against the categorization of hair as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ I love it now that I recognize it as a celebration of texture as we fight for legislation to protect natural hairstyles in workplaces and schools. I love it. And I hope you do, too.”

Correction • Wednesday, March 17, 12:30 p.m. A previous version of this story misspelled Alexandra Barbier.