The Big Blaq Show

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Photography by Stephanie Morris

This past week a large hallway in a St. Paul warehouse has been transformed into a gallery showcasing large, bold artworks by a group of Twin Cities’ African-American artists. It’s called “Big Blaq: The End of Acquiescence.”

The artists are all members of TAWU (The Art Within Us), a group that formed back in the late 1990s to support artists of color in their professional development. They meet for monthlly critique sessions, and range in membership from folk artists to formally trained painters and photographers.

While TAWU has exhibited its members’ work at many local art fairs, and at other local galleries, this is the first time it’s organized its own exhibition.

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Christopher-Aaron Deanes with his sculpture “Man’s Thoughts.”

TAWU member and show curator Christopher-Aaron Deanes says this is the first in what will become a series of exhibitions of members’ work, every six months or so.

Deanes says he’s been excited by the appearance of artists of color in major Twin Cities’ museums, especially the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

I almost cried when I saw Kehinde Wiley’s piece in the MIA’s baroque gallery. That the curators were bold enough to do that. And in their exhibition “Until Now: Collecting the New,” I was blown away by the number of artists of color included in the show. But there were no people of color walking around the galleries looking at them. That needs to change.

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Painting by Richard Amos

Deanes says one of TAWU’s goals is to help people of color feel more comfortable in a gallery setting.

There’s not a large community of color coming into galleries. They might look in the window, but they don’t feel invited for some reason. So what we’re doing is creating a different type of salon, a different opportunity to show outside of the galleries.

Deanes says TAWU is hoping to inhabit empty storefronts for its temporary shows, in order to be more accessible to the general public. For Big Blaq, he marketed the opening the same way you might see a club party advertised. The event featured jazz, funk and R&B music, as well as soul food, Ethiopian food and lots of desserts and beverages.

Deanes says the event drew over 300 people:

I saw everyone from guys who hang out at a barber shop I go to, to people that I’ve seen in the art world, and a lot of youth. It was really a great experience.

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“I Am Not My Hair” by Melodee Strong

Deanes said the show also presented him with the opportunity for “teachable moments.” When a teenager touched one of the works of art, he talked to him about the oils in our fingers can corrode a work over time. Deanes told the teenager that if he went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he might see people standing around in suits, looking serious, protecting the artwork. It’s a small step that might help one kid feel a little more prepared to walk in the door of a big museum.

Ultimately, Deanes says he’d like to see TAWU events reflect the same energy and enthusiasm he sees in images of openings at Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea, New York, or the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Tonight the artists will gather at 6pm at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis for a panel discussion on the exhibition and their work. The exhibition, located at 558 Vandalia in St. Paul, ends tomorrow.

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