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Artists bring personal history and ancestry to ‘Celebrating the Black Experience’ exhibition

Ganvié Marketplace on the Water #1, Photography
Courtesy Aukram Burton
Ganvié Marketplace on the Water #1, Photography

For Aukram Burton, a new art show at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage embodies the call-and-response tradition found in many African cultures.

Burton, who is the center’s executive director, said the call was the exhibition’s request for artists to submit work celebrating the Black experience, and the response was the varied artistic interpretations of that theme.

“When we talk about Blackness, it's not a monolith,” Burton said. “There's an incredible amount of diversity. And in fact, it's that diversity that has helped us to survive the oppression that we've been faced with over the years… The selection of the work, I'm just really, really pleased that diversity exists in the show.”

“Celebrating the Black Experience'' features more than 20 local, national and international artists, including Louisville-based artist Tramel Fain. 

Fain has three paintings on display including the exhibition's signature piece, “Ms. America.” It features a Black woman with her arms folded across her body. An American flag is wrapped around her hips and she holds a trio of flowers: a red, white and blue one. 

He told WFPL News that he began the portrait during Louisville’s racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. 

“What led me to pick this was kind of the idea of, what's America, whose America?” he said. “So I wanted to show her in a powerful pose, showing strength, in front of graffiti walls… And with the American flag, just showing that it's all America.”

In his artist statement, he wrote that he makes art “to capture strength, grace and love of life.”

Fain recently began showing his work, and wanted to do this show to connect with other creatives, such as visual and performance artist Jamie Philbert. 

Philbert is one of several artists from Trinidad and Tobago collaborating with the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage through an artistic exchange that began shortly before the pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person experiences. 

Despite not being able to be at the opening physically, Philbert said this exchange is meaningful.

“To have the energy and the essence of the work and not just me, as the artist, but what surrounds it and the space of Trinidad, it's like Trinidad is sitting inside of Louisville. So that's nice.”

The exhibit marks the first time Louisville-based illustrator and graphic artist Sydney Howleit has shown her work.

“I was starting to really feel my way through my work,” said Howleit, who has two or paintings in the show. “I'm still trying to get used to all the networking, and pricing and all of that. So it’s all a new experience for me.”

Organizers were intentional about displaying the work of artists at varying stages in their careers. Coordinator Julia Youngblood said it’s important to create opportunities and access for newer artists.

“Often there aren't that many places and spaces that are open to all artists,” they said. “That's the wonderful thing about this space is that it really is here for the community.” 

To ensure the exhibition was representative of that, Youngblood said curators focused on the message of the work over anything else.

“This is a deep story, and a deep celebration. It's a powerful celebration. All of the work comes with a lot of history and a lot of ancestry in each case.”

Aukram Burton has two photographs in the show. He remembers the first time his work was shown publicly, and those feelings of fear and uncertainty. That’s why he also feels strongly about having artists of all professional experience exhibiting work together. 

“What got me past all of that was mentoring with other artists, other artists that were willing to share with me,” Burton said. “And that's what really helped me propel, and move forward.” 

The "Celebrating the Black Experience" runs through Juneteenth.

Burton said it will become an annual exhibition at the center.

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