RISD’s First Black Biennial Now on View

A month-long, student-curated exhibition brings together artists and designers of color from RISD and beyond to illuminate the diversity of the Black experience.
Photo by Jo Sittenfeld
Providence, RI (March 15, 2022) – RISD’s first-ever Black Biennial kicked off on Friday evening with a musical celebration on Moore Terrace, outside its Chace Center. The groundbreaking show—on view in the Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery through April 10—features work by RISD students, staff and alumni as well as select pieces by other Black artists and designers from the Providence area.

“The show is all about building community,” says student co-curator Rey Londres “not just among RISD students, but with other Black artists in the area as well. Having all of these conversations in the same space has been really pivotal.”

When Londres proposed the exhibition last year, they were surprised by how much immediate support they got from college faculty and administration. They have been following RISD’s evolving stance on race, racism and social equity with cautious optimism and participated in a powerful student-led presentation to administrators about the Black experience at RISD.

“I was part of the RISD and Race Forum back in 2020 and have been thinking a lot about how activism and community-building work on this campus,” says Londres. “That experience started the engine for this show, and RISD’s new vision for the future really supports it.”

Last fall, newly hired Schiller Family Assistant Professor in Race in Art and Design Shiraz Gallab came on board as faculty advisor along with Design Leads Zoe Pulley and Jada Akoto. Londres met the other pivotal member of the curatorial team, co-curator and Brown University grad student Melanie Ferdinand-King, back in 2019 through his growing network of Black creatives that began with his discovery of the Black Artists and Designers (BAAD) club.

“Our biggest challenge was crafting a story that is cohesive but also represents the diversity and variety of the Black experience,” says Ferdinand-King. “We have work by 17-year-old artists completed just last week alongside work by artists in their 70s made in the 1970s! Rey and I worked together to tease out the many different threads this fabric is made of.”

The exhibition also features apparel, sculpture, photographs, textiles, silkscreens and even high-concept athletic shoes. “It was one thing to see all of these beautiful pieces on screen,” Akoto notes, “but to see such amazing Black art fill white museum walls has made us all collectively step back and say, ‘whoa.’ The energy in the Gelman Gallery is something I’ve never experienced before.”

For Londres, who is graduating this June and hoping to include curatorial work in their post-RISD practice, a key takeaway from this experience is how to leverage the power of community to navigate within established institutions and make space for the marginalized. “No idea is too outlandish,” they say. “If it’s a good idea, the right people will support it and help you make it a reality. The way this show came together really gives me hope for the future.”

Additional photos can be viewed here.

About Rhode Island School of Design

RISD’s mission, through its college and museum, is to educate students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design, to discover and transmit knowledge and to make lasting contributions to a global society through critical thinking, scholarship and innovation. The college’s strategic plan NEXT: RISD 2020–2027 sets an ambitious vision for educating students for the future and bringing creative practices to bear on the creation of just societies, a sustainable planet and new ways of making and knowing. RISD’s immersive model of art and design education, which emphasizes critical making through studio-based learning and robust study in the liberal arts, prepares students to intervene in the critical challenges of our time. Working with exceptional faculty and in extraordinary specialized facilities, 2,500 students from 68 countries engage in 44 full-time bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. RISD’s 31,000 alumni worldwide testify to the impact of this model of education, exemplifying the vital role artists and designers play in today’s society. Founded in 1877, RISD (pronounced “RIZ-dee”) and the RISD Museum help make Providence, RI among the most culturally active and creative cities in the region. Find more information at risd.edu.