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Our Ancestors Walk with Us

Professor's Art Installation Merges Past with Present

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 through 2003.

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.

"Rememory" was 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.