What Freedom Looks Like: Black Artists Provide Needed Alternatives

As stars and stripes line the aisles of big box stores and buzz words like “freedom” and “independence” pepper mainstream media, we’re called to re-up on a narrative that equates early American government with ideals it stole and withheld from most of the era’s inhabitants. In the face of this dissonance, I’m spending time this month seeking out contemporary black artists that encourage me to think differently about freedom(s), its origin and location, its limitations and possibilities. By no means an exhaustive or representative list, here are three recent works by black creatives that currently have me (re)thinking:

1. 400: A Collective Flight of Memory

The Things I Left for You, a collaboration between Jamaal Barber and Demetri Stefan.
(Image courtesy of Jamaal Barber)

Jamaal Barber, an Atlanta-based printmaker, conceptualized this art exhibition around the anniversary of the forced arrival of “20 and odd negroes” on the shores of Virginia in 1619. The culmination of a year-long project, “400” displays work in multiple mediums by Barber and more than 20 other artists. Centered on the ideas that the past and present cannot be separated and that collaboration is key to African-American achievement, the exhibit features pieces that mix Barber’s artistic style with other participating artists’. The exhibit is on display at the Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlanta until July 15th.

2. Mino: A Diasporic Myth

Beautifully shot and produced, this upcoming short film by Ashunda Norris prompts me to turn to myth, to worlds that haven’t yet been, for potential models of community and care. In the film’s world of utopic Biamara, women self-produce children and live without men. When one woman chooses to self-produce a boy, the entire Coven must decide whether and how to denounce her for breaking the all-female code. The trailer raises questions for me about intersectionality, independence and interdependence, and the power within relationships between Black women.

3. Coming Home

Making her debut as a solo artist, Shingai released her EP Ancient Futures in June.  The lead single, “Coming Home” is vibrant and pulsing, and its accompanying video is stunning. While “home” for the British-Zimbabwean artist is geographically foreign to me, its lyrics feel rooted in a celebration of the homelands we make of ourselves, in community. The chorus insists, “Your heart keeps calling me, calling me back home” and “You’re the reason I’m running, I’m fighting for something.” While I often feel displaced here in the U.S., this song encourages me to remember and celebrate the freedom, purpose, and sense of home that I find in beloved communities here.

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