Deep Roots Experience Turns One, with SheArt, Vol. II
One of the most encouraging things we’ve seen during the time when COVID 19 has intersected with the horror of police violence directed at people of color–and of course the deep and durable racial inequity that has spotlighted—is the celebration by Deep Roots Experience of its first anniversary. Deep Roots Experience is an art gallery at the corner of East 79th and Central, operated by David Ramsey. No one could have guessed a year ago that the gallery’s first twelve months would be marked by a steady stream of police brutality, a global pandemic, and worldwide protest over the way People of Color have been treated for centuries. It was an unexpectedly difficult time to open any business, let alone an art gallery. But Deep Roots has lasted a year, and that certainly is a reason to celebrate.
Just to get this out of the way, COVID precautions were on-point for the exhibit’s opening night. Ramsey greeted visitors at the door, requiring masks, giving everyone hand sanitizer, checking guests’ temperatures, and taking down contact information to ensure that in case someone did come down with symptoms of Coronavirus, he could track down anyone with whom they may have had contact. This was well done.
But the art is the evidence of what is really important here, so let’s get to that. Ramsey told me sixteen Black and Brown women participated in the exhibit. His goal is to give Women of Color a forum to express themselves, and show what it means to support Black and Brown Women. During the run of the show (July 18 to August 31) the gallery has booked a series of events for the artists to speak, support each other and other women, share ideas, socialize, and make themselves heard. One example is Purse, Pack, and Pass, during which people are invited to donate purses, which artists will embellish for re-use, and which will subsequently be filled with useful, personal items and given to women who can use them. That’s happening August 21. Another highlight: the Protect Our Women March, slated for August 30, will start at the gallery and make its way to the Juvenile Justice Center. Details are available at Deeprootsexperience.com.
The walls, meanwhile—every useful inch of them—were covered in the artists’ varied palettes. The works on view showed a huge variety of technique and approach. Figurative works were plentiful, even dominant, and messages – delivered through symbolism, overtly in text, or by more subtle means—were pointed at many forms of oppression and struggle that Women of Color confront on the regular. Violence, loss, and loneliness were certainly present. Expectations of women, ideas of beauty, and body positivity were expressed in a multitude of ways.
A few examples caught my eye. Christa Freehands’s Botched is a righteously vicious attack on the fact that a whole industry has grown up around the idea that women should modify their bodies to please men, or themselves, or anyone at all. The painting has at its core a butchered women’s torso, cut clean through at the waist except for an armature of the kind that might hold a mannequin together, taking the place of a spine. The body bleeds from wounds there, as well the neck and shoulders, where her head and arms are severed clean. It might make you think of the Hell panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. The breasts and stomach are marked by dotted lines, as if to mark where a plastic surgeon would ply his (almost certainly his) knife. In urgently scrawled, red lettering, the painting asks the question, How Much to Look Like This? It’s surely pointed not only at the financial cost of such procedures, but to this viewer, at least, the cost to society of pressure that leads women to be willing to have their bodies cut in order to satisfy some impossible ideal of beauty. How can we forgive ourselves for creating a world in which women are willing do this kind of thing to their bodies, let alone pay for it?
Zandra Solomon’s digital print on canvas, Empty, presents a dark-skinned child in a white dress, seated with knees tucked up, and the featureless silhouette of her face held in her hands. The work is well composed, colored, and rendered. Against a stark background that fades from ebony to umber, she is clearly feeling loneliness and the weight of the world. Next to her is a white jug, which could be a milk jug, or could just as easily have contained orange juice or cooking oil or water. There’s no label. What really matters is that it is empty.
In De’la Wilson’s acrylic painting, Oblivion, the viewer is confronted up close with a fissure in a broken stone wall, all in shades of gray, black, and white, the masonry seeping with stains. Through the break in the wall, from which its rainbow edges glow, you can see a girl walking away, into the colorful world. She has gone to the other side, dragging behind her a teddy bear with a colorful wound, like a single bullet hole, above and between its eyes.
September Shy’s acrylic on wood panel piece, Compartmentalized, is built around the bust of a woman, her head, neck and shoulders formed by a comb. That is where the figurative aspect of the work ends, though. Surrounding her head is an Afro formed not by hair, but by geometric shapes—rectangles and squares, some rendered three-dimensionally, all jumbled like compartmentalized thoughts—the many competing conditions and ideas swirling at once in her mind. Many of the forms –the ones positioned higher in her hair-do–are empty, perhaps lighter. Down lower, the shapes just above her shoulders are freighted with a cargo of words—some speaking clearly, some over-struck with a line. Among the words scratched out: Hate, Oppression, Brain Wash, Systemic Racism. Among the ones that have not been scratched out: Black, I am a Queen, War, Lynching, Freedom.
The very existence of Deep Roots Experience is encouraging for a number of reasons: First, it joins the very small number of commercial galleries with physical space in Cleveland that are owned and operated by People of Color. That by itself is outstanding news to this overwhelmingly White art scene. And they show art by people who live in the city. And because they are concentrating on artists of color, that means showing art by people who have far too few opportunities here to do so. Additionally, the gallery is located at East 79th and Central. While for decades other neighborhoods have seen galleries move in, followed by other investment, this neighborhood has not seen that kind of interest before. Here’s hoping this new spark of energy can catch fire and grow.
Deep Roots Experience
7901 Central Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44104
SheArt Vol. II
Opening Reception: July 17
Empowerment Brunch: 10:30 am August 1
In The Cut with Candi Fresca: 4:30 pm August 15
Purse, Pack, and Pass: 6 pm August 21
Taboo Talks: 3:30 pm August 29
Protect Our Women March: 2 pm August 30