Black Art History is Black History

Intisar Abioto on curating the Black Artists of Oregon exhibition at the Portland Art Museum.

Black Artists of Oregon is a newly opened exhibition at the Portland Art Museum curated by Intisar Abioto. Grace Kook-Anderson, the Museum’s Curator of Northwest Art, talked with Abioto about the process of bringing the exhibition to life, its importance for Black representation and power in the Portland Art Museum and beyond. Excerpted from the Summer 2023 issue of Portal (the Museum’s members magazine).

Grace Kook-Anderson: Intisar, can you talk about your approach to this exhibition as an interdisciplinary artist—explorer, researcher, performer, curator, writer, photographer, dancer?

Intisar Abioto: As a dancer and movement artist, I find creative possibilities in who is in the room. Black Artists of Oregon will show works by about 65 Black artists across eras and generations. The gathering of these artists’ works, the artists, artists’ families, and the communities in which they move and live in the Museum feels like the greater creative act, even more so than the exhibition itself. There’s a timeline here, a continuum of efforts and dreams to be sensed, that’s catalytic. The creative act will be what we all make of the moment. What will come of this?

What compelled you to begin research on Oregon’s elder Black artists, and what has learning about these artists meant for you?

In 2018, I’d been living here in Portland for eight years and realized that I didn’t have an understanding of the Black artists who’d lived here in generations and eras before me. With support from Oregon Humanities’ Emerging Journalists, Community Stories Fellowship, I began research through oral history interviews with Black artists and elders Adriene Cruz, Bobby Fouther, Isaka Shamsud-Din, and others; archival research; and building a collection as part of the research. Understanding the efforts of Black arts elders and forebears reveals strong foundations laid, intergenerational power, and legacy. It has strengthened my purpose as an artist, tasking me with understanding and enacting success not as a soloist, but as an intergenerational collaborator.

You’ve been very thoughtful in thinking about the individuals in this exhibition and the intergenerational exchange of artists. Why is this important to you?

It’s important that we are able to understand, feel, and benefit from our efforts as Black artists in this region, across generations. There’s much in Oregon’s history of Black exclusion that would erase us, tell the story as if we were never here. As attacks on truthful tellings of Black history take place nationally, we know Black art history is Black history. Black art history is not only a tool of education but a tool to affirm and support Black life and living today. An intergenerational telling—connecting younger artists with Black arts elders and ancestors—is vital. No one generation holds the story. We all must be engaged.

What do you want this exhibition to mean for Black representation and power at PAM and beyond? How does that ripple out to collections and programs?

I see this exhibition as a strong planting. As a dancer, I’m concerned with and excited by who is in the room. This exhibition is a gathering of dreams, perspectives, wisdoms, and also vital questionings. We know representation is not enough. We know that power is in choice and authorship. In inviting these artists into this space through this exhibition—in revealing our presence—my goal is also to leave the reins with them. It is to reveal Black artists’, curators’, and Oregon’s Black communities’ authorship in art history and thus in what’s to come at PAM and other regional institutions.

Can you share with us some details about artists who are important anchors in the exhibition?

Two artists who are anchors are Thelma Johnson Streat (1911–1959) and Charlotte Lewis (1934–1999). Both were born elsewhere but moved to Portland as young children. Both became artist educators who worked with children. Thelma Johnson Streat, a painter, dancer, and folklorist, was purposeful about teaching young people about acceptance and diversity through her work, ultimately opening schools in Hawaii and British Columbia. Charlotte Lewis, a painter and textile artist, was also an art teacher at the acclaimed Black Educational Center in Northeast Portland. These foundational Black women artists are given prominent places in the exhibition. Their lives and works still have much to teach us.



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