The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Wisconsin Triennial historically celebrates and showcases the breadth of artists and artwork from throughout Wisconsin. This year is quite different with a guest curator and an exhibit showcasing the art of 23 Black women. MMoCA’s guest curator, Fatima Laster, is the owner of 5 Points Art Gallery + Studios in Milwaukee.
The exhibition is influenced both by Sojourner Truth’s 1851 Ain’t I A Woman? speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, and bell hooks’ 1981 book Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism. It’s an opportunity to share the personal histories and artistic practices of a group that traditionally has not had the chance to participate in this kind of platform. Isthmus spoke to three of the artists in advance of the show’s April 23 opening; the exhibit continues through Oct. 9.
Being part of this unique Triennial is important to Rhonda Gatlin-Hayes as an artist, but goes beyond adding to her professional credentials.
“Black female artists are rarely exhibited collectively,” says Gatlin-Hayes. “Being in this exhibition allows me the opportunity to celebrate my femininity, individuality, self-worth and African heritage. It also affords me the opportunity to participate in a sisterhood that is rarely privy to the same level of exposure as that of women of other ethnicities.”
The Milwaukee-based artist creates African assemblage sculptures and bas-relief masks. The eye-catching masks emit a sense of mystery, history and the supernatural. The death of Gatlin-Hayes’ mother set her on this artistic path, when she inherited her mother’s quilting, sewing and crafting supplies. Her first mask, and all her masks since, are an homage to her mother, as her mother’s spirit lives on in the masks. The masks depict “the strength of the human spirit, reflecting the African Diaspora and carrying the message that everyone has worth,” says Gatlin-Hayes. They’re also a symbolic reminder that there is more to people than the masks they wear.
The layered works of Milwaukee collage artist Della Wells tell stories and often include little surprises. Wells takes the viewer to a mythical place she calls Mamboland, where Black women rule. This recurring theme grew out of her difficult childhood and also from her feeling that women, especially Black women, are devalued in our society. In Mamboland everyone is treated with respect. “When you can dehumanize a person, it’s easy for you to mistreat them,” says Wells.
Wells, who was a featured artist in the 2019 Triennial, feels this year’s focus on Black women is important and will give people a chance to see what some women of color are doing with their art. Wells, 71, is a self-taught artist who started making art seriously in her early forties. Her work was influenced by paper artist Beverly Nunes Ramsay, but Wells also gravitated towards paper and collage because she likes the idea of taking old objects and making something new and meaningful with them. This translates to people too: She believes all people should be treated with respect and have the chance to reinvent themselves.
Kierston Ghaznavi, an illustrator and mixed media artist, is the creator of both small and life-sized articulated paper dolls. “I am always trying to uplift women of color, Black women,” Ghaznavi says. She likes to increase body positivity by showing real bodies, plus-size bodies, curves, and tummies in her paper dolls. “I try to make sure people can see themselves in my art,” says Ghaznavi.
The dolls are hinged at the hips, knees, shoulders, elbows and wrists, sometimes even at an unexpected point like a ponytail, and can be moved around, which adds to their intrigue. Her dolls are glimpses into the private lives of Black women and are often humorous or whimsical.
Why dolls? Ghaznavi is the oldest of four kids and was always the one making the games for her siblings. She made little notebook versions of these dolls when they were young and says it’s the big sister in her that wants to share these dolls with the world.
Ghaznavi says she’s pretty new to sharing her work and is honored to be included with the other artists. She hopes her work “makes people love themselves a little more.”
An opening reception on April 23 from 5-8 p.m. will include a performance by Triennial artist Nakeysha Roberts Washington, and a reading by artist Lilada Gee, from 6-7 p.m. [This information has been updated to reflect a change in the original recption program.]