Sam Gilliam’s Carousel Form II (1969) and Alisha Wormsley’s afro-futurist manifesto, “There are Black people in the Future,” announce their presence as you walk into the first gallery of Promise, Witness, Remembrance. Gilliam’s Carousel hovers. It is a monolith of canvas, pigment, and pure zeal. Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Art Museum “reflects on the life of Breonna Taylor, her killing in 2020, and the year of protests that followed in Louisville and around the world. The exhibition explores the dualities between a personal, local story and the nation’s reflection on the promise, witness, and remembrance of too many Black lives lost to gun violence.”[1]  I’d add, just by their presence, it also reflects on Black ingenuity, innovation, and brilliance. In the first gallery you will also find sculpture by local artist Ed Hamilton, and works by contemporary heavy-weights Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, and Hank Willis Thomas just to name a few. Here you will also find an installation of photographs documenting the protests in Louisville in May of 2020, many taken by protesters themselves;  two of them (one photographer and one activist whose image is featured prominently) unfortunately lost their lives to gun violence later that summer and early fall.

Installation of Promise, Witness, Remembrance, photo by Xavier Burrell and image courtesy of The Speed Museum.

Replacing what is the Speed’s collection of Dutch and Flemish painting, such as Cornelis de Man’s New Church in Delft with the Tomb of William the Silent (1660s), the choice of location within the museum is a metaphor for action: a decolonization of historical powers within the ‘museum.’ Installed in the original building that was built in 1925; what was once a space that didn’t permit Black Americans, now had an exhibition of nearly exclusively Black art, about the Black experience, organized by local Black community leaders, and curated by a Black woman. What is spell-bounding about the entry to this exhibition isn’t conceptual. It’s literal. Walls painted black, Amy Sherman’s portrait of Breonna Taylor announces itself to the entry of the exhibition all the way across the floor. As you peer towards Taylor’s striking figure, your gaze is flanked by Roman statuary that mourn her loss. The floor has been transformed by Allison M. Glenn[2], the exhibitions’ curator, into Taylor’s mausoleum.

Installation of Promise, Witness, Remembrance, photo by Xavier Burrell and image courtesy of The Speed Museum.

As you make your way through the floor, you can’t help but notice a soft teal glow climbing all over the marble floors of the museum — Breonna’s glow, indeed. Kerry James Marshall’s Lost Boys: AKA BB, (1993) and Nick Cave’s Unarmed (2018) are next to each other upon the wall that divides the “Remembrance” gallery into two. The other containing exclusively Breonna’s portrait and the timeline of Breonna’s life,  are provided generously by Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother. Marshall’s “Lost Boys” is small within the towering gallery of the museum. Still, Marshall’s recognizable stone-black figure evokes the figure’s eyes, which peer at the viewer disenfranchised, forgotten, and simply exhausted. A reference to the Lost Boys from the story “Peter Pan,” Marshall considers how America’s rampant oppression, incarceration, and death deprive Black men from growing up.[3] But what takes center stage within this gallery is Jon-Sesrie Goff’s A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield (2016). The short film documents the aftermath of the racially motivated mass shooting at The Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed—including senior pastor and South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney—during a Bible study session in the basement of the church.[4] Over the speakers plays Sonia Sanchez and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Stay on the Battlefield. 

Installation of Promise, Witness, Remembrance, photo by Xavier Burrell and image courtesy of The Speed Museum.

No doubt the most significant, pulling, and aesthetically powerful exhibitions that I have seen at the Speed since moving to Louisville in 2017, the heart quakes at the consideration of the tragedies that had to occur for it to come to fruition.

Amy Sherald, Breonna Taylor (2020), Oil on linen, 54 x 43 inches© Amy Sherald. Courtesy of Amy Sherald. Photo by Joseph Hyde.

Promise, Witness, Remembrance will be installed at the Speed Museum until June 6th, 2021. Admittance to this exhibition is open and free to the public

–Megan Bickel

[1] Promise, Witness, Remembrance.

[2] Allison M. Glenn is an Associate Curator, Contemporary Art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

[3] Promise, Witness, Remembrance.

[4] Promise, Witness, Remembrance.

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