Deep Roots Asks, Who Are Your Heroes?
It’s a question just about everyone faces at some point in elementary school: Who are your heroes? But if that makes it sound simple, odds are you haven’t had to think very much about who inspires you, or who to look to as a role model. Deep Roots Experience opened Who Are Your Heroes February 20. Curators David Ramsey and Mr. Soul pulled together contributions from some accomplished artists and some just getting started, mostly from Cleveland, but some from beyond.
The show gathers a community of artists like Cleveland rarely sees together: Not just a few well-known, often-represented artists of Color, but work by Cleveland artists you probably have not seen before. It gathers them in a gallery at East 79th and Central Avenue, a neighborhood most white people probably never visit, and a neighborhood most people don’t have on their radar as a place to go see art. That’s a major credit to proprietor David Ramsey, Mr. Soul, and all who collaborate with them on this project: it is bringing creative energy, making a destination in a neighborhood that has not seen much investment.
You can learn a lot about a person by knowing who they look up to, and of course that is what this exhibit is about. Some of the heroes in the exhibit are specific people, some absolutely famous and familiar, and others less known, or known only within their families and circles of friends. Some are fictitious people who represent ideas, or actions that the artist might consider admirable–such as the woman punching the cop in Represent Change, BeeIne’s comic book-influenced piece at the top of this page. If you ask any room full of children who are their heroes, you’re likely to get some cultural icons, and some family members. It’s like that in this show.
On the iconic front, there is a beautifully done charcoal drawing called King, which is Tony Green’s portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King. And regular readers of this blog, or regular visitors to Deep Roots will recognize the bright palate of Christa Freehands, who exhibits a portrait of Nat King Cole at the piano, his pin striped suit vibrant against the yellow background, splattered and dripping with color and surreal details. These heroes need no introduction.
But among the iconic public personae are some less-known heroes who also have worked to empower African Americans, both locally and nationally. Mr. Soul’s mixed media piece, The Proletarian, is a portrait of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who negotiated peace among Chicago street gangs, worked against poverty, racism, police brutality, and to call attention to substandard housing. In 1969 he organized the Rainbow Coalition, a multi-racial union of political activist groups that would work together for common cause. He was branded a threat by the FBI, and assassinated by police in a raid. In the Aaron Sorkin drama The Trial of the Chicago Seven, he’s presented as having brought legal advice to Bobby Seals. In a social media post, Mr. Soul quotes Hampton: “If you ever think about me, and you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don’t want myself on your mind if you’re not going to work for The People.”
Photographer Donald Black’s large black and white photos–one of Jan Ridgeway, the other of Quinton Durham–are positioned across the room from each other. Black first encountered Ridgeway while he was living in New York, trying to get his photography career off the ground, and she was an administrator in the Cleveland Public Library system. His mother had reached out to Ridgeway, hoping the libraries could somehow show his work. That did not pan out immediately, but after Black returned to Cleveland and was selling photos at a fair at Karamu house, a woman at the fair walked up to his booth, recognized his work, and introduced herself as Jan Ridgeway. Ridgeway is well known in the community for having stepped in as a volunteer to rescue the financially troubled Garden Valley Neighborhood House (nearby Deep Roots, at East 71st and Kinsman. She subsequently helped Black get commissioned photography jobs at the libraries, hired him for portraits, and became a presence at his gallery shows.
Along with her at the shows came Quinton Durham. A successful general contractor and entrepreneur, he founded the Durham Construction Trade Institute as a way to train young African American men in the construction trades. Black was previously aware of Durham because his mother is also in the construction trades. The Plain Dealer reported that in his own work, Durham saw that while Black men were once common on job sites, that had changed over the decades as white-owned front companies were started to get jobs with contracts set-aside for Black workers. Black-owned construction companies faded, and with them the training they once gave to younger workers. Durham Construction Trade Institute meant to rebuild those skills in the Black community. For Donald Black, Mr. Durham became a model simply by the way he carried himself: He’s a male figure who did not need help, and in fact was able to help others.
Individually and together, Durham and Ridgeway are well known in the community. “I would love for people who are in the neighborhood of the gallery to walk into this show and see someone they know,” Black said. Both of the photos are gorgeous, absolutely clear, and highly detailed.
Dayz Whun, who we encountered first through his street art, and then his work on a mural as part of Cleveland Skribe Tribe in CAN Triennial, is showing a piece called Ji Jaga Naut, a portrait of the late Geronimo Pratt. Pratt was a decorated army veteran who served two tours in Viet Nam before joining the Black Panther Party. He was targeted as a threat by the FBI and served 27 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for a murder. The conviction was overturned when it was found that the prosecution had concealed evidence that proved his innocence. Pratt was also the godfather of Tupac Shakur.
Dayz Whun’s painting is a good likeness of the man who, both with the Black Panther Party and after his release from prison, worked as a human rights activist. The image is adorned with icons that help tell the story of his life: Two bronze stars, a silver star, and two purple hearts—all of which he earned while serving in the US Army.
On the personal front, Craig “Flux” Singleton exhibits a digital illustration of his own Aunt Mary. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to be famous to be inspiring or beloved.
The show-stopper is another personal work, with universal resonance–specifically in Black Lives Matter protests: Kevin A. Williams contributes perhaps the show’s largest work, a highly detailed painting of a young girl holding a cardboard sign, reading “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.” She’s standing in a street in Washington DC, filled with protestors bearing signs that say “I Can’t Breathe” and “Defund the Police.” In the background police in riot gear confront the protestors, and fires burn. Ramsey says the scene is made from multiple protest images, all crowded into one. The girl is Williams’s daughter. The young people who take up the fight for justice: They are heroes too.
While no one should presume any knowledge of other people’s awareness, I’d wager that a lot of White people could learn a lot from the heroes represented on these walls. That was certainly the case for me.
Who Are Your Heroes is open Fridays, 6-9 pm, Saturdays, 4-8 pm, and Sundays, 4-7 pm, or by appointment, February 20 through March 20.