i made the cornrows: Portraits of Black Nebraskans | by Katharen Wiese

April 1, 2022 - May 15, 2022

The history of Black art in America is a history of re-appropriation, protest, and infiltration: a history I am proud to be responding and contributing to, as I navigate my own identity as a multiracial Black woman.  i made the cornrows is my first major solo exhibition, for which this catalog is named. The works observe intersectional identities among African-diasporic Nebraskans. The multimedia paintings and prints are generated in response to interviews and cooperative photoshoots, allowing the sitters to be both seen and heard. The artworks and corresponding audio recordings in the exhibit were created in hopes of bringing nuanced representations of Black identity to a wider audience.

Regardless of color or culture, many Black Nebraskans hear “You are the Whitest Black person I know,” meaning: you are either not what someone was hoping for or not what they expected. I did not always know I was welcome to own my Blackness, partly because I have fair skin and saw so few people like myself.  In Lincoln, Nebraska my opportunities to explore my racial identity were limited to table talk: mom was chocolate milk and dad was regular. The message: Whiteness = normalcy. 

In my undergraduate studies, I encountered paintings by Kerry James Marshall depicting Black skin with an exclusively black palette, a fully embodied Blackness in Barkley Hendricks’ life sized paintings, and Lorna Simpson’s photographic investigations of gender and media: subjects I’d longed to see in a museum space. Among my introduction to Black contemporary art, I seldom found representation of multiracial Black life. 

The term “high yellow” was historically attributed to Black people with light skin, some of whom participated in discriminatory practices like the Brown Bag Test. Yellowness, or this state of being between races and/or spaces, can mean colorism, can mean oppression, can mean ______, and that is the space I am most interested in: the point at which the body is still deciding what kind of body to be. In my work, Hunny, yellow comes to represent contentment in the flux of decision: a space where binary understandings of race and gender are undermined and made spectral.