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June 12, 2023

Building community

BSA’s inaugural Black History Month show strengthens sense of belonging

Black Scholars and Artists members involved in "In Our Skin." Full listing at the end of the article. Photo by Amber N. Ford ’16.

By Michael C. Butz

Dozens of exhibitions are held each year at the Cleveland Institute of Art. From the larger shows in Reinberger Gallery to the smaller ones that pop up throughout the building, they all showcase the talent and creativity of the CIA community.

In Our Skin did that, too, but it accomplished something greater.

This group exhibition was organized by CIA’s Black Scholars and Artists (BSA) student organization and featured more than 80 works by 30 students and recent alumni. It invited viewers to join discussions of colorism, racial disparities, bias, development and their connections to gentrification, beauty standards and the defiance of the social “norm.”

Exhibited this past February in CIA’s Alan Lipson Gallery, In Our Skin represented BSA’s inaugural Black History Month exhibition—a noteworthy achievement in its own right. But, significantly, it also gave the artists a sense of community that some hadn’t yet experienced at CIA.

This was felt among the students through the teamwork involved with developing, organizing and installing the exhibition, but it was more broadly shared during the opening reception, where Drawing sophomore Jazzee Rozier “experienced an overwhelming amount of joy.”

“There were more people than I expected, and it felt like a huge success—like stepping into a new light as a minority group in a school with a majority of white people,” says Rozier, who had several pieces in the show. “It felt like all of us were being seen in the spotlight for once, like nothing could overshadow us in that moment. Nothing felt wrong, everything felt right, everything felt in place—and it was really nice.”

CIA Financial Aid counselor Caprice Odom, a BSA advisor, echoed Rozier’s sentiments.

“The community support was beautiful at the event,” she says. “The students were overwhelmed, surprisingly overwhelmed. They were worried they wouldn’t get the support. It was very refreshing, and it meant so much to them. Again, the basis behind (BSA) starting was they didn’t feel like they were part of this community as Black students. To see that support actually happen, I think it changed the course of some things.”

Origin stories
BSA was formed in 2016 to create community for Black students at CIA, and the idea for a Black History Month exhibition dates back to the club’s formation. But, before it could happen, the group had to establish itself—which it did, until COVID halted its momentum.

Not only were in-person and on-campus interactions minimized, but students who’d played key leadership roles in BSA graduated. “So, we had to wait until we had another group of kids who were eager to be part of CIA’s community,” says Associate Director of Financial Aid Delores Hall, also a BSA advisor.

Post-COVID, BSA steadily regathered. Still, hesitancy remained around the idea of a Black History Month exhibition. Hall credits support and encouragement from President + CEO Kathryn J. Heidemann and Yvette Sobky Shaffer, Vice President of Enrollment Management + Marketing, for helping restart the conversation.

“We needed that push, because for a long time, we didn’t have that support,” says Hall, recalling instances over the years in which, in conversations with her, some at CIA disparaged engagement and participation among Black students.

A single exhibition can’t right all wrongs or heal all wounds, but Hall believes In Our Skin helped. “I think it probably saved us a student from withdrawing—or a couple of students—because not feeling a sense of community is discouraging,” she says.

She also believes the community support shown during the opening reception was a step in the right direction. “Kathryn coming down and making her way through the crowd to talk to them, I think that was a very important moment for us—a pivotal moment,” Hall says.

“Getting to know many of the students and their families, seeing their work, learning about their processes and inspirations, and hearing their testimonies—and courageous vulnerabilities—was profound for me,” Heidemann says. “I’m fully committed to listening mindfully and intentionally, to caring, and to contributing to their success and belonging. I don’t want our students to just feel ‘included.’ More than anything, I want them to feel and know that they belong here.”

Impact statement
Paintings, drawings, prints, digital art and video work made up the majority of the work in In Our Skin. Students from across CIA’s academic environments participated. Painting senior Derek Walker believes the show was significant because of the “number of experiences and narratives students explored in their work.”

“Some students chose to do works that are more fantasy-based, other students chose to do works that were depictive or observational. So you get a big variety in terms of artwork that’s in the show,” Walker says. “All of them kind of come together in this idea of the Black experience, and it shows the ways in which people can approach that idea.”

Walker, who gained experience with exhibitions through CIA’s Creativity Works internship program, took a lead role in organizing In Our Skin. Doing so had an impact.

“It felt good to leave our mark and a type of history for BSA, and to curate an exhibition for all the students there,” he says. “They all got their first chance at having an exhibition placed on their CVs, so it was nice to be able to assist with that.”

The impact—of both In Our Skin and BSA—on Rozier was a renewed sense of belonging at CIA.

“I already liked being here and having the space to be free as an artist, but it didn’t feel as freeing when I didn’t see a lot of students who looked like me, couldn’t really relate to a lot of the students, and it felt a little bit hopeless,” she says.” But, once BSA came about, I started to see more and more, and how other Black students felt the same way as me, and our unity has created such a comfortable harmony in a way we can be ourselves, freely, and actually enjoy being artists here.”

Rozier hopes that BSA’s second Black History Month exhibition is bigger and involves more student artists. Odom and Hall do, too. Until then, a sense of satisfaction around In Our Skin prevails.

“I enjoyed seeing (the students) happy,” says Hall of the opening reception. “That night, I was really proud of CIA. I can truly say that CIA showed up for those kids. Could I have said that two or three years ago? No. Would I have said that? No. But CIA made me proud.”

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Image credit: CIA Black Scholars and Artists members involved in In Our Skin included: Front: Johntae Chapman. Second row: Theadis Reagins, Caprice Odom, Brandon Crider. Third row: Jazzee Rozier, Ke Gray, Matison Griffie, ShaDonnah Miller, Delores Hall, Zion Monice. Fourth row: Autumn Owens, Maya Green, Nasir Redenburg, Derek Walker. Back: Mark Whitfield. Photo by Amber N. Ford ’16.

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