During the months of February and March, the Department of Art and Art History sponsored an exhibition of photographs by artist Bill Gaskins titled “Black Mystery Month.” The exhibition was located in the Little Hall of the Clifford Gallery. According to Colgate’s website, the photography exhibit “merges particular mysteries of American history through a suite of still life photographs and a short accompanying video.” Gaskins is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Art with a faculty position in the American Studies program at Cornell University. He previously taught at The Ohio State University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Missouri. A scholar and accomplished artist, his work focuses on African American culture through photography and portraiture.
At an external conference on Wednesday, March 23, Gaskin spoke with students from the EDUC 440 course: “Special Topics in Educational Studies” about why society views higher education as important and how it can be align or not with personal values. Among those students were first years Meg McClenahan and Cassie Ryan, who spoke about what they enjoyed about the class visit.
“I think the most important thing I took away from Professor Gaskin’s lecture was that he sees everyone on the same ground,” Ryan said. “I think it was really important that he talk about how you don’t need graduate school to think with your community and come together around a text and create change that way.”
The exhibit included 30 photographs, each a black and white image of a figure that impacted African-American culture in the United States. There were quintessential figures in African American history, including Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and John Lewis. Plus, there were overlooked people like Andrew Young, Barbara Jordan, and Audre Lorde. Asked about the decision to portray a mix of famous and lesser-known characters, Gaskin replied:
“I want people to understand that there are people beyond the usually quoted African Americans who are local in their captions, but what they did locally had a national and international impact.”
Gaskins also said he chose to do the photos in black and white because it simplifies things aesthetically.
“I wanted to have something that would have such aesthetic impact and disrupt your expectations of what a photograph is going to be like in a space like this,” Gaskins said.
On each picture, there was also a jumbled word of white letters that spelled out the subject’s name. Gaskins explained the decision to organize the letters in this way:
“One of the reasons they’re mixed is to create an experience that requires you to give it more than the average five seconds of art typically given in a space like this.”
The photos were evenly spaced along the four walls of the gallery, with a few paragraphs about the exhibit and its arrival at Colgate between the images. Images were printed with an archival pigment print, and most were sized at 36 inches by 44 inches. When asked what she liked about the exhibit, McClenahan observed:
“When you first walk around, I was standing very close to the photos and portraits, then when you look from a distance, they become clearer. The closer you are, the blurrier they are, and the scattered letters start to make more sense the farther you get.
Among the paragraphs on the wall was the explanation of the art itself: “This suite of still life photographs titled ‘Black Mystery Month’ are made to attract attention with their unexpected form and content.
The exhibition was certainly fascinating and seemed to encourage the public to consider both the art and the meaning behind it. The exhibit at Little Hall ended on Wednesday, March 23 after Gaskin’s talk.