Art Beyond the Walls

Photo courtesy of the artist.
Alum Ervin Alex Johnson ’12 amplifies the intersection between social media, activism and art in his #InHonor exhibition.

“Forward. Forward. Forward,” are three words written by a viewer in response to the #InHonor exhibition by alum and 2016 Dammeyer Fellow Ervin Alex Johnson ’12, currently showing at the C33 Gallery. Johnson’s exhibition is both an urgent call to action and a response to online social justice communities. He is an artist that viral communities like “Black Twitter” birthed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and an artist responding to #blacklivesmatter by moving it into traditionally white gallery spaces in an endeavor to “shake people out of their comfort.”

Johnson combines protest with art in a series of photo-based mixed-media portraits echoing the beauty of the black body in all forms. The gallery is transformed by powerful and haunting images in vibrant hues of yellow, black, gold and silver paint added to the photographs of people whose skin color has been removed and then “aggressively renegotiated.” The art reflects varied forms of oppression facing the black community by establishing the erasure of the black voice through the eyes, mouth and ears of the subjects.

The choice to address the discomfort surrounding the topic of Black Lives Matter is a responsibility that reflects Johnson’s truth in being an artist and an openly gay black man. “I think that art and activism go hand-in-hand,” Johnson says. “That’s where I find my voice … it’s where I find that I can be aggressive.”

Creating an exhibit that resonates with audiences both physically and virally was an endeavor Johnson accomplished by using social media hashtags to amplify the art. The interactive exhibit encourages participation by asking visitors to write on the white spaces of the walls, share Instagram posts and use the hashtag online.

Visitors of the exhibition are also participants. They respond with physical writing on gallery walls, sharing: “My people aren’t target practice,” and “The willow weeps remembering the noose.” By doing so, they disprove the idea that social justice lives only behind the hashtags of social media. In this shared space, both online and in the gallery, the pain of this conversation haunts our past, antagonizes our present and shapes our future. With #InHonor, Johnson honors blackness, remembers those we have lost, and challenges us to make and engage with art in a way that engages the world.

September 8 – October 7
C33 Gallery
33 E. Congress Ave.