Ohio artists depict full range of existence in 'Black Life as Subject Matter II'

The new exhibit, curated by Dayton artist Willis 'Bing' Davis, opens Saturday at Riffe Gallery and will remain on display through July 8

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Ronnie Williams | INSIDE OUT | Oil |

In 2016 Willis “Bing” Davis hosted a group show at his small gallery in West Dayton. Dubbed “Black Life as Subject Matter,” it intended to present a three-dimensional view of the Black experience, capturing scenes ranging from the mundane to the political. 

At the time, Bing mailed the show catalog to a number of museums and galleries “with the hopes of trying to build something,” he explained by phone earlier this week from the Willis Bing Davis Art Studio and EbonNia Gallery in Dayton, and the only response he received was from Springfield Museum of Art. Five years later, in 2021, Bing curated “Black Life as Subject Matter II" for the Springfield Museum of Art, and this weekend the exhibit makes its way to Downtown Columbus, opening at the Riffe Gallery on Saturday, April 30, and running through July 8.

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For Bing, as well as a number of artists on display at the Riffe, the conversations haven’t changed much in the time between “Black Life” and “Black Life II,” with pieces still centering police violence against the Black community, a growing economic divide with roots that predate segregation, and the reality that the American dream isn’t as accessible to all. What has changed, however, is the public’s willingness to meaningfully engage with these topics.

“What has happened around the country and the world is the expanded awareness of what was going on, whether it was George Floyd or Breonna Taylor,” said Bing, who has been making “anti-police brutality” dance masks rooted in the African tradition since the 1970s, one of which is on display at the Riffe. “Many of us in music, dance, drama have been concerned with addressing those problems always, but it has taken on a new urgency and concern. And that’s because of the visibility of videos and people being able to actually see for themselves what African Americans knew all along.”

More:‘A shining moment’: ACE Gallery’s lasting legacy on Black art in Columbus

These victims of police violence are centered most cleanly in a pair of works by multimedia artist Larry Winston Collins of Oxford, Ohio, who crafted eye-catching shrines to John Crawford III and Sam DuBose, both of whom were shot and killed by police, DuBose while unarmed and Crawford while holding a BB gun that was for sale at the Walmart store in which he was shopping. 

Other pieces explore how Black Americans are systemically left behind (“Inside Out,” a striking painting by Ronnie Williams) and the violence experienced in higher numbers by Black women (a pair of lovingly rendered portraits by Morris T. Howard that stopped me in my tracks, the canvasses splattered with blood-evoking red paint). There are also multiple works by Columbus artist Evan Williams, including a portrait of Black lives matter protesters standing with fists raised against a clear blue sky.

Love Our Women 1 and 2 by Morris T. Howard

It’s not all tragedy, however, with other works capturing everyday scenes, such as “Family Reunion II,” by painter Clifford Darrett of Dayton, Ohio, which shows a gathering at a family barbecue and is accompanied by an artist description that introduces levity to the scene. “Some are blessing the food before beginning to eat,” Darrett writes, “but not the young folks pictured on the right — they have no respect for the blessings. They will probably be the first to need God’s blessings in their lives.”

Bing said that both editions of “Black Life” have led him to continually reinvestigate his own approach to art — a practice that has consumed him from the childhood years he spent living in an East Dayton neighborhood he described as "a small arts enclave." 

“That’s part of the growth and benefit of being involved,” said Bing, who traced his desire to capture scenes from Black life to his early exposure to works by famed artists who did the same for their cultures, including Pablo Picasso (Guernica) and Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who created charcoal images of the Holocaust. “I have always learned from my fellow artists, and one of the reasons you want to have a community of people that you interact with is because they help to feed you, help to motivate you, help to drive you. … It can motivate you to continue what you’re doing or reinforce that you’re on the right track. That’s all part of it. And it’s good. It’s what keeps you young.”

Bing was born to sharecropper parents in South Carolina, who moved to Dayton when he was two months old. His father then worked driving a coal truck, and his mother as a domestic at a hotel. Though he grew up poor, Bing said his neighborhood was “culturally rich,” populated by artists, dancers and musicians, and his early artistic pursuits were bolstered by the motivations he received from neighboring elders.

This pay-it-forward element has become an essential part of Bing’s practice and bleeds into “Black Life,” which has allowed him to turn a spotlight on up-and-coming artists from around the state.

“I think that was a reason I went into education and being a teacher, but also it had a lot to do with me recognizing  the value and the needs of nurturing other people in the community,” said Bing, who majored in art at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, which he attended on an athletic scholarship for track and basketball. “We call that the extended family concept. As an African American artist and educator, we know the value of sharing, working with and developing raw talent, because many of us came up that same way. I retired from a local university here in 1998 … and at that point we elected to move our gallery and studio out of our home and into the community, so that we could do this kind of outreach. It’s become a whole way of life.”

Abner Cope | THE STRUGGLE | Oil on canvas | 2021