To talk to Columbia artist Cedric Umoja about his work is to commit to a sprawling conversation spanning oil production to drug wars to “Freeway” Rick Ross to genetic studies to Picasso. But mostly, his latest pieces capture what it means to be black in America right now. And how fraught with trauma that experience can be.
“We Bleed Too!,” his show, opening Monday at Columbia College’s Goodall Gallery, is a response to what Umoja calls “the inhumane and unjust treatment of black people.”
“It’s about these things that have been happening to us (that) have hurt us,” he said. “I’m saying ‘Yeah, we’re hurting. We bleed, too.’”
The 25-piece show includes paintings, drawings and sculpture as well as found objects, painted skateboards and an on-site mural covering an entire gallery wall. Afro-futuristic digital imagery from artist Dogon Krigga will be shown in the mezzanine level of the gallery.
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“People can expect to see work from Cedric that is still in his classic street style aesthetic, but what they will encounter conceptually is something a little bit deeper and a little bit more challenging,” Gallery Coordinator Jacqueline Adams said. “The issues are about contemporary race struggles from a black male artist, which I think is very powerful to put on display.”
It is especially fitting that Umoja’s show is at Columbia College, which two months ago was investigating an image shared on social media depicting three students with their faces partially covered in what seemed to be black paint. The image had the caption “drink the [expletive] koolaid” underneath.
Columbia College President Elizabeth Dinndorf issued a statement to students saying the image “disrupted” the school, prompting a number of on-campus discussions about race.
“We Bleed Too!” was planned prior to the incident, “but we’re using this show as an opportunity to keep these discussions ongoing,” Columbia College spokeswoman Monique Daniels said.
Several of Umoja’s pieces directly address how black people are perceived. A painting tentatively titled, “Want Us, But With Our Black Off” shows three faces of varying shades. One face wears a stocking mask – an item sometimes used by thieves to hide their identities – and has a stylized thought bubble that asks, “Is this how they see us?” The second prays, and the third has a thought bubble of a lynching tree.
In another large piece painted on wood, a teenager stands in the center of a faded bulls-eye, an obvious statement about being a target.
“Black people, with all the trauma that’s happened, from slavery to now, we are carrying all the hurt, pain, despair. It’s as if we’ve been given inherited traumatic experiences,” Umoja said.
Some scientists say they are.
The study of epigenetics, a topic that interests Umoja, explores how external environments affect us on the cellular level in a way that can be inheritable.
The science is looking at how generations of race-related inequalities have left black people more susceptible to disease in the same way that children of Holocaust survivors are more prone to stress disorders.
What’s trickled down for today’s black population is a swirl of hurt and confusion regarding race that can be difficult to untangle.
“For instance, a black person goes into a store to buy something, if we’re not helped fast enough, it’s like, Man, we’re black, that’s why they’re not coming,” Umoja illustrated. “But if we’re helped too fast, it’s like, Man, they don’t trust us because we’re black. So what’s happened is we have been traumatized to the point that we can’t discern whether we’re being disrespected or helped. And it’s because of how we’ve been treated.”
Art is the medicine for that trauma, he added. Or if not the healing elixir itself, then the spoonful of sugar that helps it go down.
“It makes the conversation more palatable. It’s the sweetness to a potentially uncomfortable conversation,” he said.
“It’s about bringing understanding, but not in a hyper intense way.”
IF YOU GO
We Bleed Too! Mixed Media works by Cedric Umoja
When: Oct. 31 through Dec. 18. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Columbia College’s Goodall Gallery, 1301 Columbia College Dr.
Details: Reception: 6-8 p.m. Nov. 10; Gallery talk: 12:45 p.m. Nov. 14