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Sept. 22, 2023

‘Black Jubilation’ exhibit celebrates Black joy and the wonders of being Black

An all-Black artist exhibition focusing on the “wonders and joy that comes with the experience of being Black” is now on display through October 6, 2023, at (SCENE) Metrospace in downtown East Lansing.

Presented by the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University, the Black Jubilation exhibition was conceived and curated by Lillian Young, who graduated from MSU in 2022 with an MFA in Studio Art, and physical facilitator Hadara Willis, a BFA in Studio Art student, who handled all in-person organization. The exhibition aims to share the work of local Black artists with the goal of showcasing how joy can be used as a form of rebellion. 

Lillian Young (left) sits in front of artwork and Hadara Willis (right) poses, co-creators of the Black Jubilation exhibition.
Lillian Young (left) and Hadara Willis (right), co-creators of the Black Jubilation exhibition.

Black Jubilation was made from my own frustration of having to constantly see exhibitions about Black people that just show all the trauma that can come with being Black,” Young said. “Black Jubilation is more about showing that you can be an activist and you can be rebellious just by living your best Black life or just by experiencing mundane, everyday things. And it doesn’t have to be steeped in trauma or social justice.”

The idea for the Black Jubilation exhibition came when Young spoke with Jacquelynn Sullivan Gould, Director of Galleries for the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, about her frustration before she graduated from MSU in Spring 2022.

“Lillian felt like she saw the same message being shared and that a lot of them had overlapped with things like incarceration or the negative aspects of any life,” Sullivan Gould said. “She really wanted there to be a way to represent Black joy instead of focusing on negative aspects.”

Sullivan Gould asked if Young would be willing to bring this idea to life with the help of Willis, who is an Exhibitions and Gallery Assistant at the MSU Union Art Gallery and (SCENE) Metrospace.

Together, Young and Willis curated the exhibition to include a variety of mediums to show the extent of what Black joy can be, including paintings, fashion design, digital art, video, sculptures and photography, which all depict a celebration of Black experiences. The exhibit also includes works that describe Black joy abstractly, as a feeling, where viewers must read the title or know more about the background to understand where that joy comes from. The team also focused on including pieces that utilized joyful color pallets.

The oil on canvas “Self Portrait” by Larone Johnson, which is part of the Black Jubilation exhibition.
The oil on canvas “Self Portrait” by Larone Johnson, which is part of the Black Jubilation exhibition

“It was really impactful to see other definitions of Black joy because it’s a lot of things. My definition is different from Hadara’s, and it’s different from all of the artists,” Young said. “It was interesting to see how the arists interpreted the open call of, ‘show us your joy as a Black person, what does that look like to you?’”

Artwork for the exhibition was accepted on an open-call basis so as to not limit the definition of what Black joy looks like and to allow the artists to define what Black Jubilation means to them.

“The exhibition is open until October,” Young said, “so go see what activism looks like when you’re just living your best life and not having to be inundated with tragedy and sorrow.”

Young and Willis want the exhibition to be an opportunity for Black members of the community to see themselves represented through art.

“We have been able to show just how differently joy can occur for the Black community, but also in a way where anyone can connect with it,” Young said. “It’s for everybody, but it’s made with Black people in mind, which is one of the things that I hope the Black community in Lansing and East Lansing feel that this allows them to see themselves in art, which a lot of times people don’t get to see themselves in art as often as they should, but also that they get to have a little fun.”

Through their work on the exhibition, Willis was able to satisfy her experiential learning requirement and it also addressed Young’s observations on the Black experience and how to bring more positive messaging into the mix.

The acrylic on canvas painting, titled “Through her eyes” by Gabriella Turner, which is part of the Black Jubilation exhibition.
The acrylic on canvas painting, titled “Through her eyes” by Gabriella Turner, which is part of the Black Jubilation exhibition.

The exhibition features the work of 12 Black Michigan artists, including current Black students, alums, and faculty of Michigan State University, as well as other Black Michigan artists. All the artists who submitted work have at least one piece in the exhibition.

“This exhibition is really important to me because it has allowed me to provide an opportunity for Black artists to shine in a space specifically curated for them, by people who relate to them,” Willis said. “As a minority, I am always seeking out others whose experiences relate to mine, or people who look like me, and so it has been an honor to provide a space for Black artists to shine and express themselves freely without inhibition.”

Young is a historical artist, painter, and printmaker whose work depicts forgotten or muted moments in Black history and the Black experience. Her work has been exhibited nationally and in South Africa. Most recently, her work, titled The Problem with Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Words, was on display at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center in Fort Worth, Texas, June 2-July 22, 2003.

“FLESH” Collection 2.0 custom garments by Kamryn Whitfield that are part of the Black Jubilation exhibition. The garments are acid-washed and hand-painted.
“FLESH” Collection 2.0 custom garments by Kamryn Whitfield that are part of the Black Jubilation exhibition. The garments are acid-washed and hand-painted.

“My art focuses on highlighting people, moments, and objects centered around the Black experience that is left out of the mainstream narrative,” said Young, who currently works as the Family Programs Coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York. “I want my art to be a starting point for people to have those uncomfortable conversations about issues that are considered taboo to discuss. As our country changes, it is important for us to remember our history to learn from our mistakes.”

Willis plans to graduate from MSU in 2024. She is a 2023 recipient of the Marta S. Hentschel Schafer Endowed Scholarship and a founding officer of the Afro Artists Alliance at Michigan State University. After graduating from MSU, she plans to pursue a master’s degree and hopes to attend artist residencies and work to develop relationships with galleries that best suit her art.

“My experience at MSU has been incredibly bountiful. There was a time when first beginning my journey at this school that I was afraid I had no place. It was a large culture shock to not constantly see other people of color everywhere I looked,” Willis said. “After getting settled into my classes, I am thankful to have pushed through, as I have been able to meet so many other Black creatives. I have been able to amass invaluable knowledge on practicing artists in this field to curate a roster of artists that inspire me and my own creative processes.

“Being an Assistant to the Director of Galleries has also opened me up to a number of opportunities I otherwise might not have had. This job allowed me to meet and connect with Lilian, who is a joy and an inspiration to be around. It is the reason I was able to help bring her vision of this show together, and it has also allowed me to begin to foster important connections with established Black artists. I am so thankful for everything I have learned so far and look forward to what the future has to offer.”

This story originally appeared on the College of Arts and Letters website.

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