Seventeen artists of color engage in bold conversation at new Riffe Gallery exhibit opening Saturday

Working in her role as lead curator at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, Rosa Rojas has learned that an artist’s intent can be difficult to pin down.

In a late January interview in the Riffe Gallery Downtown, where Rojas curated the “Ohio Diaspora” exhibit, which opens Saturday, Feb. 1, she recounted an earlier time when artist Bruce Robinson showed in her gallery, creating mobilized sculptures embedded with bones and random ephemera and operated by remote control.

“What was interesting was that all of the materials he was using, I was responding to them, and they were telling me a story. It was a juried show, so the other juror and I were looking at them and completing full stories about the meaning behind these pieces, like, ‘You can tell why he used this bone here and that little plastic piece from a children’s toy,’” Rojas said. “And then we talked to him at the opening and he was like, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting, but no. They’re just materials that I enjoy.’

“Once again, it reminds me that we complete each piece by bringing our own experiences to it.”

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This is true throughout “Ohio Diaspora,” which features the work of 17 still-practicing Ohio artists with ties to African American culture (many of the works come from the collection at the National Afro-American Museum), including Robinson, whose wooden sculptures play with the space, casting shadows that give the works added dimension.

“The whole thing as a unit has to function, so all the pieces start to work as a puzzle,” Rojas said. “And then you’re representing black and white and color, and tonality and pattern, and different materials and concepts and themes, and then, at the end of the day, going through the exhibit, you really get a good cross-section of what African American artists are doing today.”

Though disparate, the works in the exhibit engage in shared conversation as one moves through the space. Queen Brooks’ painted wooden constructs, which mirror colorful tribal masks, echo the Bing Davis creations on a facing wall, while the black and white pieces by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi share a color palette with the striking photographs by Columbus’ Tariq Tarey hanging on the nearby south wall.

Yet each artist’s work stands on its own, inviting the kind of deeper contemplation Rojas once bestowed on Robinson’s mechanical creations. A series of five photographs by Faith Moore, for example, initially attracted for their sense of mystery, the images distorted and obscured by melting patches of white. But reading the titles, taken from interviews with the subjects depicted (one example: “I Am Not American. America Has Shown Me That.”), as well as the artist’s statement, which included details about the process (the white blotches were created by exposing the photographs to sunlight), larger concepts about cultural erasure begin to swirl.

The exhibit shares a mission with the National Afro-American Museum in terms of elevating artistic voices that, historically, have not been given a platform. And even the location of the Riffe Gallery further amplifies this idea, the artists displaying on highly trafficked High Street, directly across from the Ohio Statehouse. For Rojas, though, the exhibit goes even beyond simply elevating these creators, speaking to concepts of legacy and carrying forward the voices of those artists whose stories may not have been fully told.

“I develop these close relationships, these friendships with the artists,” said Rojas, who held long sit-down conversations with all of the exhibitors in the run up to the opening, which will also feature live music performances from Paisha Thomas and Sharon Udoh of Counterfeit Madison, whose presence might leave some seeing triple (a pair of Udoh portraits courtesy local artist Lisa McLymont are also included in the exhibit). “I really get to know who they are, because … if I outlive them, then I’m going to make sure I’m still talking, and that I can still shed a little bit of light on their art, as well as that artist as an individual.”