A Return To… Commemorating Juneteenth, curated by Alexis Javier, begins its program of events with its centerpiece exhibition opening June 3rd at Sulfur Studios. The show features over a dozen artists reflecting on the meaning behind the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery.
But for Javier, a fixture in the Savannah art scene for nearly a decade, an exhibition of this nature began manifesting long before now.
“The idea of a returning to something, a return to, is something that has been in my head for years now,” he explained. “Just doing research on lineage, where I come from, my ethnic background, being that I’m Puerto Rican but mixed ethnicities.”
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“As you’re walking forward, moving forward on your path, [you’re] looking back, out of respect, out of honor, out of homage, to those who came before you,” he added.
The first Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas on June 19, 1866, on the one-year anniversary of the day that the last remaining slaves in the United States were freed. And while local and statewide observances of the holiday have gradually spread over time, it’s only been in the last few years that serious discussions have taken place to make it a national holiday.
For the creatives involved in A Return To…, however, Juneteenth isn’t only about the emancipation of the slaves, but also much deeper issues and ideas.
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“We have all been enslaved in some way shape or form, whether it be by consumerism, addiction, depression or ignorance,” said multi-disciplinary artist Temakha, who is exhibiting five deeply symbolic paintings in the show. “All people can find inspiration in the strength, genius and stories of the ancestors who built this country.”
Llucy Anaki Oláorah, who describes the three woven sculptures she’s including in the exhibition as “future artifacts,” is similarly inspired by her forbearers.
“Juneteenth is important to me because each year I am able to revisit what freedom means to me, my loved ones, and to my people within this nation,” she said. “Keep in mind that there is a difference between being free from oppressive legal and proprietary bondage and being free in spirit and in truth. We have always been free in the latter sense.”
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“Many seem to focus on the Emancipation Proclamation as the catalyst of liberty,” she went on to say, “but when one looks closer, Juneteenth is really a celebration of we how fought with and against opposing forces to free ourselves. It is important that this understanding becomes the focus of the conversation, especially in today’s time, climate, and culture.”
Although Temakha and Oláorah share some philosophical similarities, their approaches to how to represent those ideas couldn’t be more different. To Javier, it’s one of the strengths of the exhibition.
“All of these artists are, in some sort of way, referencing [and] exploring ideas from the past through their work, and through the practice [and] process of creating their work,” he related.
“[But] it is the individual experience that is driving the content that’s being created. And so, although there’s this underlying theme that ties all these artists together, the artists are all approaching their work in different ways, and exploring the material in different ways, and creating pieces would fall into different categories.”
Evidencing this concept, Najja-Elon’s The Nommo, an explosively colorful portrait of a masked figure, highlights “gender nonconformity in African culture.”
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“There are some cultures that celebrate the concept of gender living existing outside of one’s sexual anatomy,” the painter said. “I believe that especially in the current Black Diaspora, it is important to look to those indigenous cultures that our ancestors come from to expand our viewpoints of gender and sexuality in order for us to grow.”
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum is artist Gabe Torres, who is exhibiting her piece Mother in the show, a painting that she executed on a loom.
“I have used discarded clothing from my personal wardrobe and articles of fabric I favor to create this piece because I am a mother,” she relayed. “The Wondering Spiderwort plant is woven into the loom growing live. This plant is the mother to all the propagated seedlings created in my studio.”
“Mother is truly the mother in essence and in reality. She gives, breaks, grows, ages, withers, and evolves.”
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Another of the artists, Henry Dean, Javier’s former professor and longtime professional collaborator, was given the go ahead to create a special on-site installation for the show, which he’s titled Kith/Crossover. According to Dean, the piece promises to include ballast stones and bricks from the Savannah River, sculptural woodcarvings, and other elements including dried mud and wool cloth.
“Through kith, which is knowledge, my work honors ancestors in the language of materials, acknowledging the recent and a more distant past, expressing traditions of art making shared across continents,” he explained. “The work is symbolic; the combination of different materials will be interpreted individually, but their physical presence evidences a reality of events that have occurred in local history.”
In addition to the artists mentioned, the show includes works by Amiri Farris, Antonia B. Larkin, Julio Cotto-Rivera, Margie Marie, Jerome Meadows, Nae’Keisha Jones, Jackie Black, Sauda Mitchell, Sharon Norwood, Tatiana Cabral Smith, and Zay Hutchins.
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The full programming of A Return To… Commemorating Juneteenth also features an artist talk @sulfurstudios on Instagram on Saturday, June 5th at 2pm, a roundtable discussion held at the exhibition space at 2301 Bull Street on Saturday, June 12th at 2:30pm, and Family Tree – A Youth Art Project, in conjunction with Bull Street Library. The show’s opening reception will take place on Friday, June 4th from 6-9pm.
To Javier, the exhibition will offer visitors the opportunity to appreciate Juneteenth in an entirely new way.
“It will make you feel as though you are experiencing the past and the present, and having an idea of where we are going in the future,” he said. “At least where these 15 artists are trying to take us.”
A Return To… Commemorating Juneteenth runs June 3rd to June 20th. Sulfur Studios is located at 2301 Bull Street and is open Thursday through Sunday, 12 – 5pm, or by appointment. More information can be found at SulfurStudios.org.
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