A series of colorful squares cover the left wall of an exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Reds, greens, blues, yellows — 36 squares of color with no clear pattern. A ghost-like silhouette peeks through a few of the top squares. Once the viewer activates the exhibit with a cellphone flash — or, in the virtual version of the exhibit, clicks on the image — they see what is hidden underneath: headshots of 36 different actors, actresses and musicians of color.  

Miss Pearly art

When making “Miss Pearly, The Transcontinental Mind Reader,” artist Lezley Saar drew inspiration for her transgender son. (Courtesy of the Center for Art Research) 

Hank Willis Thomas printed the piece, “An All Color Cast,” on retro-reflective vinyl. When viewing the piece in person, the spectator is encouraged to interact with it by taking a picture with the flash on, curator Danielle Knapp said. This picture allows the viewer to see the headshots behind the color because the retro-reflective vinyl is made up of glass beads which reflect back to the viewer once illuminated. 

Sorrow's Kitchen figure

"Sorrow's Kitchen" by Alison Saar references a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, “Dust Tracks On a Road.” (Courtesy of L.A. Louver)

“An All Color Cast” both calls out the lack of representation of People of Color in mainstream media and calls on the “consumers of the entertainment industry to do the work of revealing what is hidden,” according to a placard describing the image.

This piece is part of the "LOOK. Listen. Learn. Act.” exhibition put on in conjunction with UO’s Common Reading for the year. The exhibit features four different artists of color — conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, painter Kara Walker and sisters Lezley and Alison Saar. 

The artists in this exhibit are all “promoting active anti-racism as an immediate, urgent need through their work,” Knapp said.

The piece “No World,” by Kara Walker, is a painting in hues of dark blue, gray and white. Two hands reach out of the water, lifting a sailboat. Two children play off to the side, painted like stereotypical caricatures of Black people. This piece represents some of the lasting trauma of the slave trade. 

“She’s really expressing where you must not look away from the tragedy that the slave trade represented, and how that legacy continues to affect us all now,” Knapp said. 

“Miss Pearly, The Transcontinental Mind Reader” by Lezley Saar is hard to ignore. The acrylic painting on what looks like a rug, depicts a person with a huge, white afro staring out at the viewer. The placard explains how Saar drew inspiration from her transgender son. “Miss Pearly” is an androgynous figure who could be read as feminine, masculine or both. 

Lezley Saar’s sister, Alison Saar, has her own unique style. “Sorrow’s Kitchen” is a two part series — a sculpture of a woman with blue skin accompanied by a painting. The blue woman holds a pot, her head down and her shoulders hunched together. In the painting, what appears to be the same woman holds a pot as well. This time, she is angled to the side and her skin is a light, tanned color. 

According to the placard, “Sorrow’s Kitchen” is a reference to a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, “Dust Tracks On a Road.”

“I have been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and licked out all the pots,” the placard reads, referencing Hurston’s words. 

Knapp talked about the significance of this exhibit being available for free online. More people are able to experience the work, which brings up questions of access and privilege in the art world.

One throughline remains — the artists all encourage viewers to interact with the pieces and question their broader implications.

“Walker uses caricature to make her point, but we are talking about human beings,” Knapp said.

This applies to the work of all four artists — they all confront systemic inequality head on while forcing the viewer to remember that these issues continue to impact real people every day.

“LOOK. Listen. Learn. Act.” is available to view in person through June 14 and Knapp expects it to be available online for at least the next year.

Nika is a writer at the Arts & Culture desk. Send her an email if you know of any local artists or events that should be featured!