UPRISING IV exhibit celebrates joy and acknowledges despair

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On the wall across from the entrance to the Flaten Art Museum are two beautiful technicolor portraits of Black women by Karabo Ramosamo ’22. One, entitled “Mama Africa,” exudes dignified and thoughtful energy; the other, entitled “Bliss,” expresses pure joy. They are the perfect introduction to the UPRISING IV exhibit.

UPRISING is an annual art exhibition that tells the stories of Black students, faculty and staff at St. Olaf and uses art to create a space for marginalized voices. Shaquille Brown ’19 started the project in 2018, and it has since grown into the multifaceted exhibit that is UPRISING IV.

UPRISING IV’s theme is “Visions and Reflections: Narrating Black Presence and Expression on the Hill,” and Ramosamo’s two portraits effectively center the exhibit. Given the present challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, brutal police killings of Black people and the St. Olaf administration’s failure to address systemic racism, there are a lot of visions and reflections of pain among Black St. Olaf students. However, Ramosamo’s portraits, and the wider exhibit, also serve to make another fundamental point: Black expression and presence are not confined to despair, and Black joy and dignity are just as important to display.

Some pieces certainly call attention to despair and pain as well. A piece by Leila Rocha Fisher ’23, titled “To Be Human/21st Century Breakdown,” is a combination of pastels, newspaper clippings, photography and charcoal drawings, arranged as a cacophony of experiences and moments that reflect the tumult of 2020. A mask is pinned just above a newspaper clipping with the phrase “I’m not afraid of God, I am afraid of man” written on it in red ink. A charcoal drawing of a Zoom video preview rests below prescriptions for Adderall and Escitalopram.

On the other sid e of the exhibit, a poem by Ashley B. Sarpong ’23 titled “i’m such a f—ing tool!” expresses profound exhaustion from needing to constantly educate white people on antiracism. Sarpong wrote the poem in a form resembling a digital note app. Each date in the piece corresponds to an email sent to the student body about St. Olaf’s antiracism training.

Just a bit further into the exhibit, a wall displays a series of photos by Carol Luna Morales ’23, entitled “Aphrodite Bless Thee.” While each photo contains individual emotional nuance, together, they portray a group of Black women united and joyful. When juxtaposed with the pain present in some of the other pieces, this sort of joy feels positively radical.

And, UPRISING IV is radical. UPRISING commemorates the 2017 Collective for Change on the Hill protests, a landmark moment in student advocacy for antiracism at St. Olaf, which drew national media attention after students barricaded the dining hall to demand change. UPRISING fits within the broader movement on campus — led also by organizations like the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE), Black Ensemble and Karibu — to use Black art and expression as an implement for both catharsis and awareness.

Co-curator Bridget Asamoah-Baffour ’21 discussed this relationship between art and injustice, saying, “UPRISING is a safe space for artists to express whatever is going on, and for the people viewing it to come to a safe space and have some of their ideas and feelings validated through that art. I think what we are seeing on campus is a lot of Black and BIPOC students saying, ‘Well, if the admin is not going to make this place safe for us, we’re going to do it ourselves.’”

This exhibition is the fourth installment of UPRISING, in part funded by an April 2018 grant from “To Include is to Excel,” which provides money to St. Olaf groups to promote inclusive events and curriculum development. Even with the incredible success of UPRISING since 2017, co-curator Amanda Rose ’21 sees an opportunity for growth.

“We’re in the Flaten Art Museum space for the first time; usually it has been in Groot Gallery,” Rose said. “I think I would like to see it maybe even expand to perhaps having both the Flaten Art Museum and the Groot Gallery, or other places on campus as well, like the student galleries.”

The opening ceremony of UPRISING IV will take place online this Friday, March 12, and the exhibit is open until April 12. UPRISING IV is more than worth your time. It is an opportunity to learn about how your fellow students are feeling through some of the most impressive art being created on the St. Olaf campus.