A Shout, a Call, an Echo — Capturing the Echo: Expanding the Walls 2022
The sixteen artists featured in the exhibition Capturing the Echo: Expanding the Walls 2022 author their own accounts of our shared world. They are witnesses, participants, and muses. Far before the Curatorial team at the Studio Museum sat down with the program cohort on a rainy day in March, the artists already knew who and what their subjects were. The exhibition was born out of a shout, a call, and an echo.
Expanding the Walls is an eight-month photography-based program with a cohort of sixteen students who reside in New York City. The group meets twice a week, creating and engaging with weekly prompts while they are exposed to the prolific work of the photographer James Van Der Zee, as well as other photographers held in the Museum’s permanent collection. This exciting program also offers students the opportunity to meet with artists from various art backgrounds. This year, in addition to the online exhibition, the Curatorial and Education departments organized an in-person exhibition for the first time since 2019, installed within the Studio Museum’s Harlem offices.
As part of the Curatorial team working with the teens, which also included curatorial visits and one-on-one’s, our work entailed a collective engagement of both digital and physical space, starting off with remote curatorial visits. These visits provide a sense of structure and direction and they help curators map out an exhibition based on a theme or thesis—in this case, provided by the artists. We met with this year’s Expanding the Walls cohort three times. Upon our first visit, the artists guided us through their work, which ultimately served as the foundation for organizing the exhibition. We sat in three virtual rooms with two curators and up to five students per visit. The myriad works we witnessed revealed a softness that held space for intimacy and we came away wanting to highlight the multitude of expressions, spaces, manifestations, lines, curves, and journeys the artists functioned within.
The exhibition curators were interested in using the title of the exhibition, Capturing the Echo, as a prompt that informed our physical installation. Each framed image maintains a line that evokes a syncopated groove. We were intentional about celebrating the artists' use of color, as it recurs in their work, particularly through tones of red, green, and brown.
In Capturing Vibrance (all works 2022), Aichatou Traore captures vibrant scenes of nature in isolated settings. All of the artists work within an intimacy that echoes throughout the exhibition. Particularly, in Michelle Ben Appiah’s My Existence and The Untold Story, an absence of color and a quietness reflected in shadows and fine textures directly communicates to Salvador Peña Nissenblatt’s black-and-white photograph, Scapula. In this image, pigeons fly slightly above the cement ground, all moving in different directions. These two artists deftly capture stillness in movement. Omar Lashin’s photograph, Through and Through, offers an honest account of a historically violent relationship between the police and Black and brown individuals. These represent just a few exceptional works in Capturing the Echo that offer a critical analysis about the grit—and softness—of New York City.
In 2015, when I was seventeen, I participated in Expanding the Walls . Every Tuesday and Saturday I would take the 2 train to 125th Street to attend the program at the Studio Museum. On Saturday mornings, I walked past smoke from burning incense and Black folks dressed in an assortment of colorful dashikis and head wraps, heavy hands pounding on cloth-stretched drums near a large sculpture of Adam Clayton Powell. I was in search of rhythm and tune during that part of my life and in each class, I would find a pot full of soul.
I will always refer back to the impact Expanding the Walls had on my life. Our program coordinator, Gerald, put art into context through critical thought and practice, which is as necessary as creating the work. At the time, art could not be an abstract living “thing.” I needed meaning. Art needed to be something I could touch, feel, and connect to. I needed art to make sense of the world I knew; the world of Mount Vernon, New York. I came into the program as an Afrocentric, stubborn, loud, and awkward teenager full of rage. I wanted a place to lay it—my anger, sadness, and deep and complicated feelings about this world. To bury it and water it into something beautiful. Gerald taught me how to address rage using art. Seven years later, I feel emotional witnessing the 2022 artists engage with their work. Not long ago, I too sat on the other end of the curatorial process as an Expanding the Walls participant trying to learn a new skill to define my world.
On the 2022 program’s culminating day, the Studio Museum staff stood in the lobby of the Museum's Harlem office where the physical installation was presented, offering the artists praise. They were proud of the work they produced—I understand exactly how they felt at this pivotal moment in one's young artistic life. They now possess resources to create a body of work in a historical Black community, and will forever be attached to the Studio Museum’s legacy. The educators and community who come out of Expanding the Walls make this program special. These brilliant artists will gravitate toward whatever shout, call, or echo that pushed them to create. They are a part of an important, singular body of work produced in the Expanding the Walls program that has paved the way for Black art to thrive and succeed, and reverberate over time.