Blair Ebony Smith, Love Will Bring Us Back Together from (Refrain) Turn Me On, 2022. Photo collage. Courtesy of the artist.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Four Black art and design faculty members at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are collaborating at Krannert Art Museum in a new approach to the annual School of Art and Design faculty art exhibition. “Black on Black on Black on Black” features visual artist and chair of studio art Patrick Earl Hammie, graphic design professor Stacey Robinson, art education professor Blair Ebony Smith and graphic design professor Nekita Thomas.

The exhibition opens Sept. 24 and runs through Dec. 10. The opening celebration for the exhibition will be a daylong Saturday event with music, food trucks, all-ages activities and a panel discussion by the artists. It will feature live jazz by Reginald Chapman and a reading by author Nabil Ayers, presented in partnership with PYGMALION. The evening reception will feature food by local Black-owned business Neil Street Blues.

“We were adamant about making sure to get as many Black people as we could for support and sponsors to show the active Black community here,” Robinson said.

The exhibition traditionally has been a way for faculty members to display current work and for art and design students to understand their professors’ creative practice.

“It started almost a century ago, when there were few faculty members showing in venues elsewhere. It was hard for students to see their professors’ work,” said KAM director Jon Seydl.

Students now can see faculty artwork in many ways, including digitally. Inspired by conversations with former dance professor Endalyn Taylor Outlaw, then the FAA Dean’s Fellow for Black Arts Research, Seydl said he and Alan Mette, the director of the School of Art and Design, envisioned this faculty show as centering on the distinctive strength of Black arts faculty members. They created a one-year project to open up new possibilities for collaborative research and deeper public engagement.

“Each of these artists has a distinctive reputation far beyond the U. of I. for their cutting-edge practices, and it’s been thrilling to behold the development of significant new work they developed in tandem with one another,” Seydl said.

The four artists – representing half of the Black faculty members in the history of Art and Design – had not worked together before, but their individual practices share themes of Black quantum futures, music, time and remembrance.

“We want people to have a glimpse into how, through our work, we are thinking through the spectrum of Black life and what that means to us and how we experience that in our communities,” Hammie said. “We want people to be able to walk into different spaces in the museum and see we’re taking up space, we’re here, and that every time they turn a corner into a new gallery, the breadth and depth of who we are as artists and people show what Blackness can be.”

Public programming related to the exhibition includes a series of guest lectures, tours of the exhibition for community leaders, collaborations with faculty members who want to use the exhibit for teaching and interaction with middle school and high school students who come to see the show.

“We’re doing so much more than putting works in a museum,” Hammie said.

Hammie’s installation “I Am … The Night” pairs images from “Soul Train” with those of vigilante crowds responsible for lynchings. The work examines the fear of “the Other,” disrupting nostalgia for both “Soul Train” and historic vigilantism, and it proposes how our personal connection to collective experience allows fresh space for empathy and action.

The “Soul Train” images of singers and dancers are paired with silhouettes and abstractions of lynch mobs that resemble Rorschach ink blots. The pairing allows viewers myriad experiences based on their relationship to the past and present, Hammie said.

Robinson’s work, titled “Black Audacious Freedom Dreams,” is a collaboration with psychologist and artist Kamau Grantham through their artistic partnership, “BLACKMAU.” The work is rooted in the idea of hope.

The installation presents 10 banners printed with vibrant digital collages that hang vertically in two rows. They are accompanied by a video installation featuring a DJ set by Robinson and Grantham that was part of Carnegie Hall’s Afrofuturism Festival in February and March. The collages are influenced by and mimic inexpensive mass production and advertising practices of the hip-hop and house music culture of the 1980s and 1990s, Robinson said.

Smith is a sound artist and DJ known as lovenloops, and her work in the show “(Refrain) Turn Me On – Would You Come On Home?” uses sound and photographs to create a remembrance of family. The title is from one of her father’s favorite songs, Roy Ayers’ “Love Will Bring Us Back Together.” Smith created a soundscape for the installation using her father’s mix tapes of jazz, funk, hip-hop and soul.

Her art installation contains collages of family photographs; records, tapes and CDs; and a receiver and large speakers in a media cabinet. Smith uses these materials to examine love, the relationship between time and memory, and how music can be invoked to remember people.

Thomas’ installation, “Black Space Protocols,” examines the locations, settings and objects that signify Black cultural experiences. It reflects on the isolation, disorientation and marginalization of people of color, especially Black women, in higher education settings. In response, her installation offers items relevant to Thomas’ own experiences, including everyday garments and items from Chicago’s Bud Billiken Day Parade.

Thomas’ work is based on the idea that space is not racially neutral. The project is intended to be open-ended and provoke discussions about Black spatial practices and how space can be designed in a way that is fortifying and liberating. The artists created Spotify playlists to accompany their work. These are available in the gallery through QR codes and on the exhibition website.