Exhibition Review: “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas”

From the Smithsonian Institution to UC Davis came the travelling exhibition IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, in residence at the Student Community Center last month on its way across the nation.  Indivisible examines the interwoven cultural history of African and Native American lives and the resulting African-Native American narrative. The engaging text and images of the show chronicle the synthesis, dispersal, and struggle of maintaining an identity that has long been ignored in American history. In combining interviews and images of the African-Native American descendants and ancestors, the exhibit provides a full-circle history and understanding of the African-Native American culture, and the importance it has in understanding concepts of identity.

Located in the Cross-Cultural Center, the exhibit started in the lobby of the Student Community Center, known as the “Art Lounge,” and ended in the “PEACE Lounge,” where the bulk of the exhibit is displayed. The introduction to the exhibit was featured in the lobby where students use the space to study and socialize. While it was nice to have the exhibit so accessible and inviting, the space had its challenges since visitors to the exhibit were forced to move between seated students who often became disgruntled by the interruption, not realizing that they were inadvertently blocking the preface to the exhibit on the wall behind them.

“Can you go home again?”

This important preface asked the audience: “Can you go home again?” “Can a shattered tribe be revived?” The questions were followed by block paragraphs addressing the history of African and Native American communities, and their place in society at each juncture in history. The first of the images was of a smiling President Obama standing between two Native Americans at a forum. This print was followed by historical photographs and paintings depicting African-Native American scenes.

The preface of the show illustrated the lack of inclusion of African-Native American lives, and the invisibility of this cultural connection. The exhibit shed light on these linkages by sharing stories from historical and contemporary African-Native American culture that have been ignored in the past.  Each image depicting scenes of African-Native American lives had a caption describing its inclusion in the show, and why or why not the image was historically accurate.  In various instances, images were compared one to another (particularly between photographs and paintings) to illustrate the inclusion or exclusion of African-Native Americans and their roles in historical events.

Walking the Exhibit

The continuity of the exhibit was another challenge of the space since it was not clear after the preface where the rest of the exhibit was. I asked a friendly volunteer about the whereabouts of the show and only then saw the discreet signage hung on the walls and study rooms pointing to the location of the rest of the exhibit.

Following the signage, the exhibit continued towards the back of the building in what appeared to be a break room and kitchen. As I continued to walk through the exhibit, the smell of microwaved meals permeated the air, while curious students eating their lunches looked on.

Particularly of note was the fact that there were no physical artifacts or objects in the exhibit. Instead, everything was printed on laminate screens set up in the center of the small room. Each screen represented a theme, including art, politics, roots, medicine, and religion, and displayed historical and contemporary interviews that brought a personal touch to the history of the culture.

The result was an exhibit that was as informative as it was powerful. The combination of anecdotes, historical photographs, and objects was compelling.  However, the two-dimensionality of the show read more like a poster presentation than an exhibit. The dynamism of the exhibit too, was a bit diluted by the challenges of the space. After several weeks in residence at the Student Community Center, the exhibit closed on Dec. 19th, 2014, and will head next to the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, California.

– Alexandra Craven, DHI Arts Correspondent