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Datebook: University Galleries Exhibition Promotes Black Artists' Freedom Of Expression

Note: Brenda Pagan uses both she/her and they/them pronouns. Alexander Martin and Hannah Offut use they/them pronouns.

Unless it’s Black History Month, or she’s been invited to an exhibition about being a person of color, Brenda Pagan usually finds she’s the only Black artist in a show.

It’s one reason they helped found the Peoria Guild of Black Artists — PGOBA for short — a collective of Black creators across a spectrum of mediums and experience levels.

And it’s part of why, for Pagan, “Making Our Space,” an exhibition of the works of 14 PGOBA members on display at University Galleries in Uptown Normal, is such a big deal.

Pagan said when she’s the only Black artist in a show, she doesn’t get to be an artist who just happens to be Black.

“Everything we do has to be about representation,” they said.

But in a show of 13 of her closest friends, mentors and collaborators, Pagan could make whatever she wanted.

“I just painted a picture of a heron,” Pagan said, laughing. “That’s something I don’t do often for shows. I’d like to do more of that.”

The exhibition also marks one year since Pagan, her roommate Morgan Mullen, and close friend Alexander Martin all sat in Pagan’s living room following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, airing their frustrations at the way the art world failed to really see or hear them.

Martin recalled one illustrative example, when organizers of a mural project in Chicago put out a call for Black artists to help paint over boarded-up downtown businesses.

“But most of the places that were boarded up weren’t damaged, they boarded themselves up out of fear of people of color, and we were like, ‘Uh, this is why we don’t feel comfortable with that,’” Martin said.

It’s the kind of explaining Pagan said happens a lot when you’re a Black artist in a primarily White art space.

But with PGOBA, they said, “We don’t have to explain ourselves.”

Grants from the Illinois Arts Council Agency and Alice and Fannie Fell Trust helped fund the exhibition and programming.

University Galleries Curator Jessica Bingham is a former Peoria resident who knows several PGOBA members from early in her own art career. She said by organizing the exhibition, she wanted to give PGOBA a platform — not only as talented individuals, but as a powerful collective.

“Some of the artists of the group have had longer experience in the art world, and they’re willing to share that experience with younger artists learning how to navigate this system,” Bingham said. “They work in and for their community to uplift each other’s voices. Instead of keeping everything for themselves and running with it, they want to share.”

Hannah Offut is one artist who’s benefitted from that sharing as a PGOBA member.

They created five pieces for the exhibition, including a woodcut print as part of a group-wide collaboration with Normal Editions, a non-profit print research facility founded in 1976 within the Wonsook Kim School of Art at Illinois State University. The collection of prints, titled Carving Our Space: New Kids on the Block, also is on display as part of the exhibition.

Hannah Offut reads their poem, "Burn," as part of Poets of the Peoria Guild of Black Artists, a spoken-word poetry video produced by videographer Kayla Thomas.
University Galleries
Hannah Offut reads their poem, "Burn," as part of Poets of the Peoria Guild of Black Artists, a spoken-word poetry video produced by videographer Kayla Thomas.

Offut has been in other shows, but this one in particular challenged them to develop professionally.

“I felt a lot more serious,” they said. “I had to do a lot more writing and thinking about my art...I feel really proud of myself, just how much work I could do and what I accomplished.”

While University Galleries provided program support, PGOBA gave equally crucial emotional support.

“We get together and we talk about life and it’s so refreshing,” they said. “And we also really inspire each other. If you see the gallery show, I think you can see how much we do inspire each other.”

Offut is right — the group’s cohesion is evident across the exhibition, most especially in two collaborative works.

Offut joins Brenda Pagan and three other members in lending their voice to a spoken-word poetry video produced by videographer Kayla Thomas. Each poet reads their piece in a different room of Pagan’s home, the site of the inaugural and many subsequent PGOBA meetings.

Pagan, Offut, Morgan Mullen and Alexander Martin each lent their figurative voice to Collective Subconscious, a large-scale collaborative diptych painting. Motifs of the cosmos surround the figures as they stretch and bend through various yoga poses, imagery that stems from the group’s collaboration with non-profit yoga studio Soulside Healing Arts.

Works by Morgan Mullen, left to right: The Joker's Wild, 8 of Clubs, 2 of Hearts, 5 of Diamonds, and 3 of Spades.
University Galleries
Works by Morgan Mullen, left to right: The Joker's Wild, 8 of Clubs, 2 of Hearts, 5 of Diamonds, and 3 of Spades.

Familiar faces also appear in Mullen’s work, a set of five tri-color digital prints evoking the characters found in a deck of playing cards.

Mullen said including Black figures in the series wasn’t a decision she made lightly.

“When you add a Black body to a work, it automatically just becomes about the Black body,” she said. Mullen ultimately chose to include her friends’ likeness in the series, not because they’re Black, but “because of them as people.”

It’s a choice several PGOBA artists made, together cultivating a body of work that presents Black figures with opulence and power as readily as tenderness and humor.

Martin said you’d be hard pressed to find that range of representation in just any art space.

“People want a specific Black story, like a story that can be Black, like Black through a white lens, which is like, ‘I am worn down by this country, I am afraid of this, I am suffering,’ they want like trauma,” they said.

But trauma isn’t the only Black story worth telling.

“We are multifaceted. Like yes, we’re angry, yes, we’re hurt, but we wake up every day and live and celebrate with each other, and celebrate happiness, celebrate joy. And I don’t think there’s enough work highlighting the full gambit of emotions.”

“Making Our Space: Members of the Peoria Guild of Black Artists” is on display at University Galleries in Uptown Normal now through Aug. 1.

Visit the gallery website to reserve a time to tour the free exhibition, or explore a virtual tour.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.
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