This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.
Nevada Humanities: Making Voices Heard
by Sydney Boyd, project manager, Humanities in American Life initiative
When you walk into an art gallery, do you move clockwise or counterclockwise? Are your eyes drawn to the color, the medium, the framing, or the other people milling around? These are just a few questions Nevada Humanities asked themselves when they were adapting their latest exhibition, “Resiliency: A Blooming Diaspora,” online. A lot about the way we move in the world has changed this year because of the pandemic, and walking through a gallery is no exception, but Nevada Humanities knows that doesn’t mean the experience is any less powerful.
“Resiliency: A Blooming Diaspora,” curated by Brent Holmes in conjunction with the Illustrated Word Exhibition Series and part of the Las Vegas Book Festival, features artwork by ten artists and focuses on the relationship between the severe desert environment of Southern Nevada and the unfailing courage of those who thrive there—namely, people belonging to the African diaspora. Bobbie Ann Howell, Nevada Humanities Program Manager, is the person behind the scenes hanging the work, adjusting the lighting, taking pictures of the artwork for online viewing, and asking herself those questions about how to preserve the impact of the exhibition online.
“We really wanted to talk about what it is living in this harsh environment physically and the struggle of African Americans moving into any community and having a voice,” Howell said. “[We wanted to] show pieces of the artists who are here and making their voices heard.”
Normally the gallery, which sits in Las Vegas’ downtown arts district, would be bustling with visitors and conversation, but the pandemic changed all that. When I talked to Howell, she said that while there are still a few people wandering around, the city was empty enough that kids were skateboarding down the strip.
“It’s important in the community not to be completely shuttered and find ways to not fall out of touch with people,” Howell said. “We’re all trying to figure out, how can we still meet the needs of the artist and keep ourselves safe in this world? I’m grateful to the artists who want to keep sharing their work in whatever way we can and help us to keep connected with our community.”
Modifying the exhibition to be almost exclusively online took some creativity. A conversation between the curator and the artists, recorded November 5, is available here online. And if you go to the online exhibit (which you can do here), you’ll find photographs of the artworks as well as close-ups of arms, eyes, noses, fingers, as well as a comic book a boy is holding in Q’shaundra James’ “Shhhhh….Quiet” oil on canvas. To choose what to focus on, Howell said she just imagined what she would want to go up to and get a really close look at.
“Would I want to see the brush strokes, or the texture, or how it’s hung?” Howell said.
While Howell is missing the conversations she usually has with the community in the gallery, a few people had just come by before I talked to her—a family with four kids who pressed their faces on the gallery door and tried to get their dad’s attention. Howell grabbed a mask and opened the door. They were an African American family who told Howell they had never expected to see anything like this here—artwork that reflected their community.
“Normally, those are the people I would get to spend a lot of time talking to,” Howell said.
This exhibit features more portraits than the gallery has in the past, and sitting among the many faces alone talking to me on Zoom, Howell gestured to the work on the walls around her as if they were old friends. She said she hears a conversation between two little boys on opposite gallery walls looking at each other across the room and feels poetry and family roots spreading across “Is Mama Cosmology The First Sound in the Universe,” a quilt with plumb twigs by Erica Vital-Lazare.
“Every exhibit—when I change it, I’m lonely when I take it down,” Howell said. Gesturing to a piece on the gallery’s east wall titled “Cloud Girl” by LaRon Emcee, she added, “The girl with the big smile and the cloud hair, she’s over here looking at me, she’s in my peripheral vision all day. I have her watching over me.”’