Our Ancestors Walk with Us
Professor's Art Installation Merges Past
by Mavis Clark
Johnny Coleman firmly believes that each
of us walks in the presence of those who came before us, and
he knows how to help us find the path.
The assistant professor of art and African
American studies shared his belief this fall with a 9,000-square-foot
installation titled "Rememory: A Response to Beloved,
for Nyima," at the Here Here Gallery in downtown Cleveland.
Begun the year his two-year-old daughter Nyima was born, the
work is based on Toni Morrison's novel and the mystical, between-the-lines
sense of the ghosts of the past - the ghosts we all carry
- implicit, but not stated, in her story.
Oberlin's new partnership
with the Here Here Gallery, forged by Coleman and his wife,
associate Professor of Art Nanette Yannuzzi- Macias, made
the installation possible. The goal of this collaboration
is to link the Cleveland and Oberlin art communities in a
tangible way. The Here Here Foundation will mount one independent
exhibition at the gallery annually, and during the rest of
the year the gallery space and a small, attached theater will
be available for exhibitions and performances by Oberlin faculty
members and students. The current partnership agreement runs
Coleman has been creating
complex installations at museums and galleries on both coasts
for more than a decade. In 1996 he was featured in "Urban
Evidence," a monumental exhibition at the Cleveland Museum
of Art, the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, and SPACES.
Oberlin's first solo exhibition at Here Here, and one of Coleman's
most ambitious undertakings to date. The installation focused
on heightening awareness of his family members' interior lives
and of the spirits that guide them, Coleman explained. Morrison
expressed this as "the sight of memory."
As part of his offering in
this public gift of a prayer to his daughter, Coleman included
a suspended, handmade boat containing materials his daughter
holds dear - flowers, herbs, and long locks of Coleman's own
hair. Elsewhere in the space, black-eyed peas and corn grits,
more references to the ingredients of "home," filled
toolbox-houses. Through the use of hidden speakers, the space
was also filled with sounds that Nyima loves: chirping birds,
moving water, singing crickets, and the murmur of voices.
Coleman gathered the long,
heavy beams and other wood used in the elaborate construction
locally. Area farmers donated innumerable bales of hay and
straw and hundreds of corn stalks that stood in neat rows
within the imposing structure.
"Rememory" is not
the first installation Coleman has produced to honor his children.
He observed the birth of his son Ayo, now six, with several
works, including a sound installation about black male relationships
titled "Fathers and Sons."
For this large-scale project,
Coleman and Albert Chong, an associate professor of art and
photography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, spent
a year gathering black men's stories from all over the country.
They then joined forces with acclaimed author and poet Quincy
Troupe, professor of American and Caribbean literature and
creative writing at the University of California, San Diego,
and the Hitite Empire, an African American performance company
based in Santa Monica, California, to craft a narrative ritual
that was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Coleman
composed the stage set/sacred space in which the ritual was
enacted, while Prentiss Slaughter '98 performed the central
theatrical role. Slaughter received national recognition in
a review in Art in America magazine.
Exhibition space on Oberlin's
campus is at a premium, making it difficult for artists like
Coleman to mount large-scale projects. The Oberlin-Here Here
partnership should ease that space crunch and make it easier
for faculty members and students to plan events without worrying
about finding appropriate exhibition space.