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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Smith Arts January 9, 2020

Exploring ‘Black Refractions’ at SCMA

Three students of color seated and smiling at the camera. The middle person holds a copy of the exhibit book Black Refractions
Springfield high school students (from left) Elizabeth Mickens, Karina Eddington and Joseph Bonilla in SCMA's Winslow Teaching Gallery with the exhibition catalogue for 'Black Refractions.'

Perched on a bench in the teaching gallery at the Smith College Museum of Art, Joseph Bonilla—a sophomore at Springfield Central High School—explains that what he likes most about visual artworks are “the stories they can tell.”

Bonilla has been helping museum visitors discover stories in paintings, drawings and other works featured in “Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem.”

The landmark exhibition includes nearly 100 works by artists of African descent from the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Thelma Golden ’87 is now director and chief curator.

Bonilla is among a group of local high school students—all participants in Smith’s Project Coach youth leadership and community engagement program—who led guided conversations about works in the exhibition during a Free Community Day of activities in January.

“This exhibition has a lot to say,” notes Bonilla, of the display that opened January 17 and runs through April 12. “There’s a lot about activism and battling stereotypes. It’s a great opportunity for cultural awareness.”

The Community Day events grow out of a partnership between SCMA, Project Coach and the Art Bridges Foundation aimed at expanding community access to art and museums. Launched last fall, the partnership connects 30 Project Coach participants to “Black Refractions” through training sessions, art-making activities and engagement with Smith student museum educators and museum visitors—including area elementary school students.

“Our approach is about inspiring conversations,” says Gina Hall, SCMA’s educator for school and family programs. “We’ve been working with the high school students on how you talk to people about art; giving them tools through a technique called Visual Thinking Strategies.”

Three students of color looking at a copy of the exhibit book Black Refractions while an art educator looks on.

Gina Hall (far right), SCMA's educator for school and family programs, talks with Project Coach students about their guided conversations for the new "Black Refractions" exhibition.

Karina Eddington—a 9th grader at Springfield Renaissance High School and a newcomer to art museums—says the training sessions have helped her gain confidence about her own responses to art.

Learning to ask open-ended questions, such as “What is going on in this picture?” and “What more can you find?” has “changed the way I look at, not just art, but everything around me,” Eddington says.

Her classmate Elizabeth Mickens says she has appreciated the opportunity to explore works by artists of color featured in “Black Refractions.”

“My sister and I like to paint,” says Mickens. “Being able to come here and see how other people interpret things in their art has given me a lot of ideas. I’m looking forward to hearing how the kids we work with feel” about the exhibition.

Choosing a single artwork to talk about has been a challenge, the students say, given the range of what’s on display in “Black Refractions.” The exhibition highlights the work of artists of African descent such as Faith Ringgold and Kehinde Wiley, as well as the role of the Studio Museum in fostering important dialogues about art and society.

Turning to a page in the exhibition catalogue, Bonilla explains why “Bonfire” by New York City artist Norman Lewis is among his top choices for a Community Day conversation. The painting’s bright central image reminds Bonilla of figurines of jazz musicians he saw in his aunt’s house when he lived in Mississippi.

“The story this piece of art brings to me is of a gathering; people celebrating their music, their culture and what’s left of their ancestors,” he says. “The art is a way for the artist to tell us their thoughts and who they are. That’s what’s so satisfying about it.”

The museum’s partnership with Project Coach and Art Bridges will continue this spring, with an after-school engagement program and a public art project.

Jessica Nicoll, the SCMA’s director and chief curator, notes that “Black Refractions” and related community programming come as the museum is celebrating its centennial.

“This exhibition and the partnership with Project Coach students are inspiring ways to launch our second century,” she says, “modeling our commitment to connecting people to art, ideas and each other.”