When local artist Jeremy Darby began discussing what would become the Black Like Me art exhibit with Tua Lingua gallery founder Nathan Petro, he had no idea the show would take place mere weeks after the death of a North Charleston man at the hands of police — an event that would result in worldwide headlines. Black Like Me, which features artwork from numerous local African-American artists, has been slated to take place the first weekend of May for months now.
"We were in planning stages prior to the Walter Scott shooting," Darby says, careful to make it clear that he has no intention of exploiting recent events for publicity or forced relevance. "It took all of us by surprise. I was actually in talks with Nathan in late January or early February. Not to take away from [the shooting], but we're still doing the same thing we planned to do."
What Darby plans to do with Black Like Me is no small thing. The show, he says, will provide a platform for Charleston-area artists who have not been able to gain a foothold in the local galleries. "Outside of MOJA, and maybe some shows at the Avery Research Institute, there's not much else for a lot of black artists," he says.
The show hopes to address what Darby feels is a lack of access for African-American artists. "One of the things me and Nathan talked about was to pull away from any of the traditional art scenes in Charleston," he says. "Not showing any work that has to do with landscapes, but also not anything that's, like, taxidermy. Something that would still be contemporary, but for the artists that aren't seen as often."
The two men initially met through local artist Phillip Hyman, creator of the hooded angel posted at the scene of the Walter Scott shooting. The idea took shape after Petro and Darby began to discuss resistance to work that reflected an identifiably African-American point of view.
While he's quick to point out that he isn't claiming black artists or subjects aren't represented in Charleston, Darby feels most of the work he's seen tends to fall in a very narrow range of what's acceptable. "I've seen plenty of black faces beautifully drawn or painted," he says. "But just as portraits. If they're actually doing something — as a subject matter, as more than just a pretty picture — then it usually won't be accepted."
But while Darby wants to challenge that staid trend, Black Like Me has more to do with exposure than any specific theme. "A few of the pieces I haven't even seen yet," he admits. "If you want to know what we've got, you'll just have to come and see."
Black Like Me includes contributions from more than a dozen local artists, including batik artist Michael Johnson, mixed-media artist Charles Perrineau, storyteller and painter Natalie Daise (best known for her work on the Nick Jr. show Gullah Gullah Island), and painter JahSun. Many of the artists participating are hardly household names, or even known quantities in the Charleston art scene, but Darby says that's kind of the point. "They had an art show a couple months ago called ISMS," he says. "And that's actually how I found a few of the artists for this show. Some of these people, they've never shown anywhere."
In addition to the artwork, the event will also feature music and spoken word poetry by Spoken Word Spartanburg. The various members of the troupe will punctuate the program with performances, spaced throughout the Friday night and Saturday afternoon exhibition hours.
Darby is aware that he's not the only person to recognize the need for African-American artists to have outlets for showing their work. He cites Fletcher Williams' recent show Souvenir at 94 Spring St. as an example of evidence that Charleston is opening up to different points of view. "Me and Fletcher have actually had talks about this. There needs to be more artwork from younger black artists, or any artists who have anything specific to say in their art," Darby says.
He adds that there might be more group shows after this one. "We might pique somebody's interest. But even if one person out of the group might get some shine from the show, I'm cool with that," he says.
Ultimately, the show is about more than an immediate sale or commission. He hopes it will contribute to an atmosphere of growing acceptance for diverse perspectives. He feels that recent events, as tragic as they are, and the conversations they have sparked, might have weakened some of the barriers he and other African-American artists have encountered locally. "We've been hearing a lot of people speaking for us," he says. "Why not have us speak for ourselves?"