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A Contemporary Black Matriarchal Lineage in Printmaking at Claire Oliver Gallery

Stephanie Santana, A Watchful Eye. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.

A Contemporary Black Matriarchal Lineage in Printmaking

Claire Oliver Gallery

Through March 19, 2022 


Catch a window into a close-knit community–A Contemporary Black Matriarchal Lineage in Printmaking remains on view at Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem through March 19th. This debut NYC group show by Black Women of Print opened in late January, highlighting nine contemporary Black women printmakers working with the innovative collective.  

Black Women of Print founder Tanekeya Word and founding member Delita Martin curated the show. Their selections explore “the depth and breadth of printmaking through the lens of Black women and their myriad narratives,” states the exhibition’s release. “Like our foremothers, Black women printmakers have used the tools in our hands to create visual languages that tell the stories of our past, present, future and the in-between spaces within fractal time,” says Word, a visual artist, art educator, scholar and fine art printmaker based in Milwaukee, WI. “Each printmaker shares matriarchal perspectives on Black interiority.”

At the exhibition, Claire Oliver and Director Ian Rubinstein said printmaking has proven a historically male-dominated field–perhaps due to the emphasized association with machinery. Since its creation in 2018, Black Women of Print has helped shift that narrative to reflect printmaking’s diverse reality, serving as “an African diaspora centered platform, a digital homeplace for independent, mid-career and established Black women printmakers,” and creating “a place to support and promote the visibility of Black women printmakers.” 

Tenekeya Word, Tender a sisterhood anthem (Bside), 2021. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.

In an August 2021 interview with Widewalls, Word intimated, “Black Women of Print was a dream of mine that I had the audacity to believe could be life-changing for myself and Black women who were professionally practicing in the field.” The organization provides members practical services like professional development classes and support groups, but also offers free digital content and accessible education on the web. Black Women of Print operates from a place of passion for the craft, and for its people. 

That passion plays out across their latest group show. Texas-based artist, educator, and Black Box Press founder Delita Martin grounds the space with robust feminine energy in portraits crafted from relief printing, acrylic, charcoal, decorative paper, hand stitching, even gold leaf. At 44 x 64 inches, My Mother’s Bowl (Self-Portrait) enraptures first with size, but then immediately with color–supple jewel tones and bright spots of pattern permeating positive space at well-placed intervals. Her figures range from concentrated to curious, united by strength of character. Martin’s biography says she draws “from oral traditions, along with vintage and family photographs'' in order to “visually represent what it looks like when we become the spiritual other: when we pray or meditate.” Flooding warm light, they elucidate the rich array of stories lived by Martin, her peers, and her ancestors. 

Martin’s visage also appears in work by LaToya M. Hobbs, who painted and printed and carved the artist into Delita Study #1 with acrylic, ink, and collage on wood panel. Every detailed stroke of this meticulous process completely draws a viewer so close they may actually notice the earthy smell of wood. Interactions amongst artists throughout the show embody a deeper significance to Black Women of Print as a collective. 

“I wanted to create a place where intergenerational Black women printmakers could form bonds like Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs and Elizabeth Catlett,” Word states on their website. “From Mid-Career to Established printmakers, it is my hope that we all can learn something from one another, support one another and also have a home so that the world can get to know the intersectional narratives of Black womanhood and our creative processes.”

In her Widewalls interview, Word added, “It is vital to have an organization like Black Women of Print as it serves as a site of resistance–one that centers who we are first. As a Black woman artist, who is also in academia, the majority of spaces I enter have a Eurocentric center that I must tirelessly navigate to succeed. I don't have to feel the surveillance of my body with Black Women of Print and members have felt the same. We can just be ourselves and enjoy one another.”

Delita Martin, My Mother's Bowl, 2021. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.

Contrary to print’s reputations, each creation in A Contemporary Black Matriarchal Lineage in Printmaking is entirely unique. To emphasize the value of feminine experience in this field, they incorporate additions of stereotypical “women’s work.” Hailing from the Mississippi Delta region, Word “combines her knowledge and training in the Western art historical canon of linocut printmaking with hand embroidery.” Succinct silhouettes are classic without compromising individuality alongside colorful quilting on 280 gsm BFK Rives. Word likens the experimental techniques across this exhibition to “the soul food of the print world.” 

Soul food comes in many flavors. Screen print appliqué adorns apparent baby blankets by Stephanie Santana featuring family photos “often dating from the era of Jim Crow and the American civil rights movement,” says her biography. Lisa Hunt works in meditative patterns with novel decadence, alchemizing 24k gold leaf, acrylic, and canvas. Xerox collages by Sam Vernon parse the enigmatic languages behind individual letters. Karen J. Revis slices delicate layers with manicure scissors. Stasis by Chloe Alexander was sold to a twin from Queens on her first-ever visit to a gallery.

Two artworks from the Auction Block Series by Wyoming-raised interdisciplinary artist Ann Jonson stand out from the wall–images of black and indigenous women printed with intaglio on puffs of raw cotton. These objects are ephemeral compared with the stark platforms that carry them. Bold caps read: CHATTEL and OCTOROON. Johnson’s contributions confront “the cross-generational trauma and pain of slavery, as well as the survival and existence of its ancestors,” the release explains. This pain demands to be felt authentically, collectively before it can be healed. Johnson graciously offers her talents to help facilitate that healing, endowed with inspiration from her African, Native and African American lineages. Word also noted in her interview that Johnson could have another career in comedy. 

Situated in a four-story brownstone, Claire Oliver Gallery makes a natural fit for this exhibition. The staff and space resound with welcoming excitement for the work on the walls. Claire Oliver started off in the industry specializing in prints while living in Paris and working with a mentor. In the 25 years since starting her own gallery, she’s focused on work by women and people of color to push the art historical canon. Their two communities overlap through March 19th to showcase a dynamic view into the recent works and inner machinations of Black Women of Print as a rising collective force. WM

Vittoria Benzine

Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // vittoriabenzine@gmail.com // vittoriabenzine.com


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