“As an artist, I am against division and more about unity,” Aretha Busby told The Herald in reflection on her latest art installation “Tolerably Black,” which ran Oct. 15 to Nov. 15 at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. The exhibit focused on the experiences of enslaved people in the United States.
Busby was inspired to undertake this project when she discovered a small, blurry wanted advertisement for a runaway slave, which she later screenprinted and framed to “dignify the lives” of U.S. slaves, she said. Busby borrowed the term “Tolerably Black” from one of these ads she discovered. She noted that this term likely referenced the person’s skin color, and it also sparked her own ideas about blackness. Through her art, Busby explored the idea of what it means to be “tolerably” black in today’s society.
The exhibit featured various mediums, including a video of Busby and partner Hyram Laurel reenacting a couple’s escape from slavery in the 19th century, audio pieces, period costumes, six nooses hung from the ceiling as well as framed and unframed wanted advertisements. Busby chose to include these mediums so that she could reach a wide array of audience members who might react more to certain elements of the exhibit. The most controversial aspect of the show was the six nooses, which became a main topic at the discussion panel Nov. 14 led by the curators of the exhibition, Katherine Chavez ’19 and Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sánchez, AS220 artist-in-residence.
Elon Cook Lee, a panelist and the program director and curator of The Center for Reconciliation, detailed her emotions when first encountering the exhibit and how challenging it was for her to see the nooses showcased. This was particularly painful for her due to her family’s history with lynching — a history her family still cannot talk about. Lee added that when she asked a family member why no one wanted to talk about lynching, they informed her that they were “still neighbors” with the family who lynched Lee’s ancestors. “I can’t see a noose and not see a threat,” Lee said, highlighting the relevance nooses have even in current times.
Taylor Jackson GS related her family’s past traumas with lynching and racial violence, and asked in regard to the nooses in the exhibit: “How do we have the hard conversations without retraumatizing people in the process?”
The panelists discussed ideas about how art should mediate and approach violence and past traumas. Professor B. Anthony Bogues, director of Center for Slavery and Justice, talked about the idea of “curating with care.” This practice includes paying “attention to the historical conditions of brutality.” Becci Davis, a 2018 Fellow at Rhode Island School of Design Museum, spoke of her split position between the hardship of pain and open conversation. “Without pain, these conversations would never happen,” Davis said, adding that dealing with censorship can risk erasing history. Busby talked about the painfulness of tying and adjusting the nooses while setting up her exhibition, but concluded with how “necessary it feels.”
In an interview with The Herald, Busby reflected on the difficulty it took for her exhibit to come to Brown and acknowledged Brown’s “complicated history” with slavery. Busby talked about how the nooses imply a risk that runaway slaves were incurring when they chose to flee. In this way, the artist tried to demonstrate the harsh reality of slavery. Busby stated that she does not believe her choice in subject matter and use of nooses make her a “protest artist.” The nooses were not there for the “shock value,” but to discuss the “ugly and painful” history of the United States, she said.
Busby acknowledged the trauma of the work but highlighted her desire to educate and spark discourse in multicultural environments. Such a conversation was started when Busby showed her work at an elementary and middle school in New York City where children interacted with her art. “How is Aretha Busby’s work changing the world?” the principal asked the children. As Busby listened to the schoolchildren responding, she felt she “knew (she) was on the right path,” Busby said.
Clarification: This article has been updated to include Katherine Chavez's ’19 and Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sánchez's roles as curators of the exhibit "Tolerably Black."