‘Black Warrior Mask’ represents shift in SU Art Museum’s focus

A new art piece marks a shift in SU Art Museum's focus

SU Art Museum’s winter exhibition sees contemporary and historic portraits sharing the limelight in an effort to reinvigorate the museum and tackle issues of racism, classism, xenophobia and more.
Published: March 10, 2021
View of the gallery featuring two pieces:
A view of the gallery featuring two pieces: "Black Warrior Mask" by Allison Janae Hamilton (left) "Nou Fè Pati, Noue Se, Nou Avi (We Belong, We Be, We Long)" by Widline Cadet (right).

Of all the portraits on display in the SU Art Museum’s winter 2021 exhibition, Black Warrior Mask is one of the newest — and most experimental pieces.

Inspired by photographs of black soldiers wearing fencing gear, artist Allison Janae Hamilton sculpted the mask in 2020, a reflection on her identity as a Black woman hailing from the American South. The piece is on display in the museum — and on virtual display at the museum’s website —  as part of the winter 2021 exhibition, “Being Human: Portraits from the Permanent Collection.”

The exhibit places traditional portraits from the permanent collection alongside newly acquired pieces, in a bid to both expand diversity within the museum and broaden current understandings of portraiture. SU Art Museum Director and Chief Curator Vanja Malloy was excited to acquire the sculptural work and sees the potential for students to connect their own experiences to Hamilton’s piece.

“I think in terms of representation, this is a really important addition to the collection,” Malloy said, “but also in terms of pushing boundaries of what art is communicating.”

Hamilton’s work grapples with the double-edged sword of identity — capturing the unique sorrow of a soldier fighting to save a country that does not want him — while incorporating the influence of community, folklore, and location in crafting a narrative. The warrior mask pushed the limit of portraiture, its black resin surface shimmering as it takes up its rightful place as one of the stars of the exhibit.

“It’s always reflecting the light in the room, it’s always shifting and changing and you catch it in the corner of your eye and you’re drawn to it, because of the scale and how intimate it is,” Malloy said.

The Art Museum’s Associate Director, Emily Dittman, echoing Malloy, said the small fencing mask has a remarkably large, attention-grabbing presence in surrounding area.

"Black Warrior Mask" by Allison Janae Hamilton — A recent acquisition by SU Art in efforts to diversify its collection.

“It has this kind of air of familiarity, but then an anxious mystery attached to it as well that makes you want to dig deeper,” Dittman said.

Hamilton’s utilization of art and sculpture to explore her identity as a Southern Black woman, Dittman said, could inspire students to reflect on their own experiences through the lens of their own individual passions and creative mediums.

“I think that that’s a really good way for people, even if they’re not into the art on campus, to think about themselves and their history and culture, and then apply it to what their studying,” Dittman said, “To make it a broader interdisciplinary focus to the campus community.”

The acquisition of Black Warrior Mask, along with other pieces completed in 2020, exemplifies the SU Art Museum’s new approach toward obtaining artwork for the permanent collection. Rather than focusing on purchasing historic works and works by well-established, traditional artists, the museum has shifted its interest to contemporary works by up-and-coming artists.

By obtaining works made by contemporary artists, influenced by current events, the museum hopes to engage students by demonstrating that artwork can be relevant to their experiences. In doing so, the museum also breathes life into older pieces that nonetheless contend with the same struggles — racism, classism, xenophobia and more — that many current SU students face. Beyond that, the museum is supporting artists who are trying to make a name for themselves, rather than those who already well known.

“It makes a lot more sense for us as a museum to support someone who’s emerging, than to support someone who’s already really well established,” Malloy said. “It’s a very different shift, we’ve made a huge shift in our approach.”

Beyond that, the acquisition of contemporary, diverse pieces serves as a way for the SU Art Museum to acknowledge the historical gap in representation within the permanent collection.

“We’re opening that door that may have been shut beforehand,” Dittman said, “But right now it’s wide open, and we want to hear from everyone, from all walks of life and all experiences.”

The goal isn’t to undo nor erase the past, but rather to learn from and respond to historic mistakes and failures to represent deserving artwork from artists of all identities and experiences.

“It’s also the power of historians today to change the narratives that have been told about historic art because we have a different mindset than past historians,” said Malloy. “We want to include more voices and more narratives and to call attention to things that have been problematic and to address them.”

A public lecture with Allison Janae Hamilton will hosted on Tuesday, April 20 at 2:15pm, via Zoom.

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is a contributor for The NewsHouse and magazine, news and online graduate student.