The gallery at Pyramid-Atlantic is hosting an exhibition of work by nine African-American women artists who participated in a collective project variously titled Project 2020 or 2020 Visions. Initiated by Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter in July 2020 she, along with Adjoa Burrowes and Gail Shaw-Clemons, brought together a total of nine participants, all of whom are well established in their careers as artists and artist-educators. Each was asked to conceive an artist’s book that would express her experiences through the difficult and tumultuous times through which we have lived over the past year and a half. Each of the books was to be conceived individually. However, as a collective project, the intent was that each book would make a rotation to all the women in the group so that each had about a month to add her part to each of the books. Given the pandemic, the fact that two of the artists were living in New York, and one book was lost in the mail along the way, accomplishing this was more complicated and even dangerous than it may sound. When all the books finally “came home” in April 2021 to their original creators, the women realized the analogy to a birth. Shaw-Clemons’ statement sums it up rather beautifully:
“All of the books came home full of powerful images in April of 2021. From the conception of the project in July 2020, through nine months of gestation, the completed books were ‘born’ and delivered to their artist mothers in April of 2021. Each book is a unique, profound, powerful testament to the events of 2020-2021. The books also bear witness to the organization, tenacity, and care it took for them to be completed. They are tangible evidence of the formidable force of sisterhood.”
As most of them the artists in the collective include printmaking in their practices, working on and with paper to physically make the books came naturally, but their variety of form is striking. Yet they are all characterized by patterning, bright coloration, a density of imagery and strong text, often handwritten.
The exhibit at Pyramid features the finished books, as well as other-mostly recent-works by the artists in the collective. Most of them have already been making art in response to social inequities and Black history in this country for some time, but rather than being simply polemical, they display a good dose of creative panache and great skill.
The exhibit includes an example of a beautiful book made by Pamela Harris-Lawton that recounts the story of her father, Papa Will, in wood engravings and letterpress. Hanging in an alcove is Equality, a powerful soft sculpture by Francine Haskins (2017) that includes references to Black culture and racial violence. An artist’s book by Julee Dickerson-Thomas made in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the consequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, is displayed in a vitrine. In a somewhat confusing juxtaposition, the same vitrine’s lower level holds Gibson-Hunter’s Project 2020 book. Along with the book itself are little nylon organza pouches that each of the artists were asked to fill with an object from an array of stones and beads that were provided. The book and the pouches and the remaining objects make an installation that the artist characterized as “something like a gri-gris” a West African traditional talisman worn to protect from evil and bring good luck. Many of the beads and little stones are painted with the universal and very ancient handprint sign as a protection from evil. The artist envisioned her installation, and I think her aim with the project, in those terms:
My book was designed to be a power object. … It’s my hope that this installation will engage both thought and imagination, for if ever there was a time that calls for vision, healing, protection, inspiration, and activities guided by a sincere moral compass, it is now, in these ruthlessly revealing times.
The theme of protection from evil continues in Gibson-Hunter’s other work in the show; a series of elegant abstract wall sculptures that are collectively titled Gri-Gris for the First Wave of the 3rd Millennium. These were made in 2020 not long after the George Floyd tragedy. The artist has commented that she felt that after such events Black people were especially in need of protection. Gibson-Hunter turned to the African tradition of the gri-gris, although it can be mentioned that such talismans are found in all global cultures. The floating wall pieces themselves are abstract and reflect the artist’s stated understanding of the world “in terms of interacting forces. Abstraction is used to give form to these forces.”
The importance of names, from a personal and cultural point of view, is the theme of Adjoa Burrowes’ project book. For Name Sake is a construction made up of the folded paper contributions of all the artists, each of whom responded to the theme. When the work is closed, it forms a star, a small geometric shape. But it unfurls into a hanging, which is how it is installed at Pyramid. The artist wrote that she “chose names as a theme for my book because of its implications and meaning within Black culture – from the naming of victims of police brutality in the US, to the name as shield and armor…”. In addition to personal references about names, the work also prominently includes signs and protective symbols. One piece contains the phrase: “symbols and names are a part of our traditions.”
The theme of names also has a place in Gloria Patton’s project book. Titled Nexus, the artist asked her colleagues to respond the idea of the links between social evils like poverty and crime, skin color and police violence on its pages. Among the most sophisticated of the books, Patton’s reflects a high level of graphic design experience. The pages of the book are doubled to make pouches for smaller pieces to be inserted. The last page, Patton’s, contains a list of the signatures of each of the other artists made as they worked on the book.
After a career of teaching in New York, Washington DC-born Gail Shaw-Clemons recently returned to the area, and as mentioned earlier, was one of the initiators of the Project 2020 collaboration. Her book is focused on the crocodile, a fierce but ancient animal that has endured for millennia. Her own statement sums up her intention quite nicely:
“[The crocodile] is considered a symbol of adaptability by the Akan people of Ghana. It has its own proverb, ‘The crocodile lives in the water, yet breathes the air,’… [the book begins] with a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar entitled ‘We Wear the Mask.’ He uses the mask metaphorically to describe how Black people had to wear the mask of contentment and happiness, while trying to negotiate racism on a daily basis.”
She concludes her statement with words that I think could express the feelings of all the artists in the collective project:
“My participation in Project 2020 gave me a vehicle by which I could respond and reflect while working through the trauma of daily events. It got me through the tough times and made me overwhelmingly aware of my own strengths and resiliencies.”
9 Artists / 9 Months / 9 Perspectives: Birth of 2020 Visions”, work by 9 Black Women Artists: Adjoa J. Burrowes, Julee Dickerson- Thompson, Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter, Michele Godwin, Francine Haskins, Pamela Harris Lawton, Gloria Patton, Gail Shaw- Clemons, and Kamala Subramanian.
Pyramid Atlantic Art Center is located at 4318 Gallatin Street, Hyattsville Maryland 20781. More information at pyramidatlantic.org or 301- 608-9101.
In person viewing possible but masks are required. Starting July 28, the public is welcome during regular gallery hours without appointment.
Gallery hours are as follows:
Wednesday and Thursday, 10 – 8pm
Friday and Saturday, 10 – 6pm
Sunday 12 – 5pm.
The exhibition runs through August 29, 2021.
 From Gail Shaw-Clemons statement in the artist’s catalog to the exhibit. The statements of each artist from this catalog are displayed in the exhibit near their individual works.
 All quotations from the artist’s statement in the catalog to the exhibit.
 From the artist’s statement in the catalogue to this exhibition.
 Both quotations from the artist’s statement in the catalogue to this exhibition.