RISD’s Student-Curated Black Biennial Focuses on Access and Community

inside the Gelman Gallery with view of off-white cotton dress

RISD’s Gelman Gallery was the place to be on the evening of April 18, as over a thousand visitors showed up for the opening of Sonder: The Black Biennial, a multidisciplinary exhibition bringing together Black artists from RISD and the surrounding community. The show was curated by juniors Amadi Williams 25 PT and Isaiah “Prophet” Raines 25 SC, who built on the themes of access and unity introduced in the first Black Biennial in 2022.

“We’re trying to provide a level playing field for all Black artists in the area regardless of their affiliation with RISD,” Williams explains. “Our goal is to weave together their different realities and highlight the phenomenal work that is happening throughout the state.”

The show’s theme, Sonder, picks up on that idea, and its definition welcomes visitors in the gallery’s entry. “Sonder: The realization that each individual is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, in which you might appear only once in the background of someone else’s story.”

the community gathers for the opening of the show
curators Amadi Williams and Prophet in the gallery
Above, opening night in the Gelman Gallery; below, curators Amadi Williams and Isaiah “Prophet” Raines. 

Prophet’s story began in the nearby city of Fall River, MA, where he and his friends saw RISD as an inaccessible “castle on the hill in the clouds. This is my first time curating,” he adds, “and it has been a huge learning curve. I’m thinking about curation as a way of providing opportunities for people who don’t have a lot of them.”

Prophet and Williams agreed that the exhibition labels should not specify who is a RISD student, who is a faculty member, etc. In fact, they left it up to each artist to say what they wanted about their work or themselves in the text. “It’s not about what we think of their work, but what the artists think about it,” Prophet says. “We let them share their individual experiences in their own voices.”

Many of the contributing artists provided scannable QR codes that allow visitors to hear their stories first-hand. The code beside an oil painting by 17-year-old artist Jovani Delgado called Lost links to the artist’s reflections on growing up with parents who sheltered him from the “harsh realities of life. … I was like a bird with clipped wings, unable to fly in the face of adversity,” the narrative reads.

visitors to the Black Biennial explore the gallery
brightly colored textile with a hidden message of hope
Above, the exhibition features work in multiple disciplines; below, Ooo La La (acrylic on muslim, halftone on organza, detail) by senior Marin Griffith.

Another painting, NATE by multidisciplinary artist and alum Elijah Trice MArch 23, is accompanied by an interview with the artist. “Just hearing his voice, his Baltimore accent, brings the painting to a whole different level,” says Prophet.

Williams has previous curatorial experience and sees herself working in a museum or gallery after RISD. (She’s a two-year conservation fellow in the RISD Museum.) Her large-scale painting, Family, was included in the first Black Biennial when she was still a first-year student. A staff member at the museum told her that a group of first-graders studied the painting during a class visit and talked about what the word family means to them. “That kind of visibility within the community is really rewarding,” she says. “That’s the kind of experience I want to share with the artists in this year’s show.”

Selecting works and laying them out was a challenge. “Every piece we chose from the 160-plus submissions we received has the ability to speak on its own but also communicates with the pieces surrounding it,” says Williams. “There are also a lot of great video pieces this time around.”

a look inside the show
sculpture of two heads in hoodies
Above, a view inside the gallery with a large-scale painting by co-curator Amadi Williams in view; below, TwoHoods (Spilt Ilk, Hollow Tips) by Brown/RISD Dual Degree Student Njari Anderson.

RISD alum Rey Londres 22 PH and Melaine Ferdinand-King, who curated the first Black Biennial, provided helpful coaching, as did Assistant Professor Christopher Roberts. “The reputation of the first exhibition helped us spread the word and drew in a lot of submissions,” Williams notes. “When I heard the word biennial back in 2022, I was excited that RISD was making a commitment to do another show in two years and I wanted to be involved. We want to make sure we uphold that [tradition] and build a sense of community for people of color at RISD, Brown and the Providence area.”

Sonder: The Black Biennial remains on view through June 2, and a closing reception is scheduled for Commencement & Reunion Weekend. 

Simone Solondz / installation photos by Jo Sittenfeld
April 23, 2024

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