Shirley Woodson, ‘New Black Vanguard’ debut Detroit Institute of Arts shows

One features vibrant, bold images taken by emerging Black photographers from across the world who are shaping a new narrative about Black art and fashion with their work. The other showcases the artwork of a renowned Detroit artist and educator whose career spans six decades.

Both are new exhibitions opening this weekend at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion,” which opens Friday, features more than 100 standout images shot by 15 Black photographers from all over the globe, exploring not just fashion and art but gender roles, sexuality, even hair. The show is curated by Antwaun Sargent, a Chicago-based writer and critic. A portion of the exhibition showcases images by six Detroit photographers.

“Antwaun talks about this exhibition establishing new narratives in the Black experience,” said Nancy Barr, the DIA’s curator of photography. “He feels this group of photographers specifically is sort of an informal movement of new photography and Black creators, looking at the Black figure.”

The exhibition features eye-popping images by photographers Campbell Addy, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Micaiah Carter, Awol Erizku, Nadine Ijewere, Quil Lemons, Namsa Leuba and Tyler Mitchell among others. Mitchell, an Atlanta native, was just 23 when he photographed icon Beyonce for the cover of Vogue in 2018. 

“Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” meanwhile, is a separate exhibition that opens Saturday, featuring 11 paintings from Woodson’s “Shield of the Nile” series. Woodson, 85, a longtime educator who has mentored artists throughout Detroit, explores the restorative, spiritual and cultural importance of the Nile River as a metaphor for Africa.

Artist Shirley Woodson poses during an interview, Thursday, October 7, 2021, at her art studio in Detroit.

Woodson, who was named a Kresge Eminent Artist earlier this year and 2021 Michiganian by The Detroit News, uses repeating imagery in several paintings: horses, shields, and, of course, water. Bold brushstrokes depict activity both above and below the water. In several, women stand in the forefront and men are only in the background.

“You get both a topical view of the water and an X-ray view,” she said. “You’re getting multiple views.”

Valerie Mercer, the curator and department head of the DIA’s Center for African American Art, said the Nile is where many African-Americans trace their ancestors so there’s a connection to it for many, “even if you’ve never been there.”

Woodson's "Flight with Mirror," an acrylic on canvas, is featured in her exhibition, "Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile."

“So there’s a kind of mythology around it — the Nile as an ancient body of water,” said Mercer. “It has beneficial, very positive effects on us. The effects are spiritual, emotional. It’s making the connection with our heritage.”

Mercer said the paintings also are a reflection of Woodson.

“She is someone who has a strong identity as a woman, as a Black woman,” said Mercer.

Robert G. Mull

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