Intisar Abioto: Black Lives Matter in Chehalem Cultural Center Show

Intisar Abioto’s larger-than-life portraits appear as if they were meant to hang in the Mezzanine Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg is a sprawling building with half a dozen gallery spaces for the visual arts, including the Mezzanine Gallery. In full commanding view upon entering the building, it is also physically inaccessible. With no disrespect to any artist whose work has appeared there over the years, I’ve often cast my eyes over the Mezzanine exhibit and thought, “Well, that’s nice… but why have they? they put everything up there?”

This question does not arise with and black rainbows when, a new exhibition by Intisar Abioto, whose work is seemingly everywhere lately. The 36-year-old multidisciplinary artist from Portland has this exhibition in Chehalem until September 30, and you can see a similarly themed exhibition of her work, black domainat the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland until September 24.

And black rainbows when looks like he belongs the and nowhere else. Given the height of the photographic images, they probably wouldn’t go anywhere else, and the staggered display of nearly 20 black portraits makes them appear as if they’ve risen from the ether, ready to work their magic on you. .

“Yes thanks !” Abioto responded when I told him that. “Yeah, that’s definitely the goal.”

“Siena, New Orleans”, by Intisar Abioto

Abioto said the exhibit, or at least the concept for it, originated in another large space: the 5,000-square-foot Building Five in northwest Portland, where she had a residence there. about a year. Given the opportunity to fill this renovated industrial space, Abioto said the vision that came to mind was: larger-than-life images of black people, family, other people she met in the street.

Carissa Burkett, who was then full-time at the Chehalem Center, saw the exhibit and asked Abioto if she would be interested in using the Mezzanine. “She reached out to me,” Abioto said. “And even though it’s a different type of space, I think it works in this space.”

The images are nearly all of women, and whether they’re sitting on a sofa, framed by trees and lawn, in front of a brick wall, or standing in the street – and whether they look posed or not – all seem they belong precisely where they or they are, at the moment in space and time that Abioto took their photo.

Abioto was born in 1986 in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of artists. When she was 14, she started using her father’s Canon AE-1 single-lens reflex camera and never looked back, even though hosting shows like this and the one in Portland requires that she looks back. The images, according to the show’s notes, come from his own “dreamscape, hopescape and decades-long bodily journeys” over 22 years.

To say that Abioto, interviewed here by Oregon ArtsWatch contributor Dmae Lo Roberts in March, is “multidisciplinary” seems almost an understatement. She is a dancer, writer and photographer, and her work comes to life through the disciplines of journalism, art curation, historical research and activism that come and go within each other.

“Great Godmother Coming Home”, by Intisar Abioto

Abioto has lived in Oregon since 2010, and since moving here she has been intensely interested in the legacy and contributions of Oregon’s black artists who came before her. “Because I myself was struggling here and I myself needed to know how they had survived, thrived – or if they had failed. So I was looking for them.

This comment appeared in an article she wrote for Oregon Humanities magazine in 2019. She found the historical excavation work inspiring, and it continues. It also informs and black rainbows when: One of the images is of Portland artist Adriene Cruz, photographed at what looks like a MAX bus or train stop in Portland in 2018.

A key source of inspiration for the Newberg exhibit is the African diaspora myth of the Flying Africans, which has evolved over hundreds of years. The origins are complicated and span continents and cultures, but North American roots can be found at Igbo Landing on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. In 1803, enslaved blacks revolted and, rather than remain in bondage, marched together through the swamp. “Flight,” in African oral storytelling traditions, became the code for escape and liberation sought by black people who were torn from their homes and enslaved. In the story of Igbo Landing, it means their souls crossed the ocean back to Nigeria.

The themes of flight and liberation were beautifully captured in 1985 in a collection of black American folktales written by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Abioto remembers having a copy of people could fly, by Virginia Hamilton, who won the Coretta Scott King Book Award in 1986, at home in her youth. Imagery from another of Hamilton’s books, His storiesis included in one of the images in the Newberg exhibit superimposed with the artist’s own mother.

“They say people could fly. Say that a long time ago in Africa, some people knew magic. And they were going up in the air like climbing on a door. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Shiny black wings beat against the blue above.

—Virginia Hamilton, “The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

An illustration from Virginia Hamilton's book
An illustration from Virginia Hamilton’s book “Her Stories” is superimposed over a photo of Intisar Abioto’s mother in “Midnite & Her Stories.” Photo by: Intisar Abioto

In the exhibit notes, Abioto writes and black rainbows when “is the itinerant, site-specific public art expression of this living archive, a compendia in the artist’s constellation of historical works imagining after this way…it moves in and through traditions and the vision of the African diasporic myth of the Flying Africans, a canonical tale of black flight and freedom re/told for hundreds of years by black people in the Americas, a tale that continues to live and express itself in their varied and expansive dreamscapes today.


The Portland exhibit features more of Abioto’s photography focused on Black Portlanders and Oregonians, an exhibit on “the lived history of Black place. Through portraits of Black Portlanders and Oregonians in their homes, at work, in creativity, and at worship, the exhibit captures places of architectural, cultural, and historical significance to the Black community.

Abioto is incredibly busy, both with her job and the press attention that comes with it. In 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests raged in Portland and across the country, she was one of two women featured in a New York Times article about the “explosion of creativity” among black artists in Portland. She recently received a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation to create Gathering of black artistsa three-day retreat for black artists, curators, and arts administrators in Oregon, to be held in 2023. She also has ongoing projects at Southern Oregon State University and the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland.

She will also be curator. Oregon Black Artists, the first major exhibition of its kind at the Portland Art Museum. This seems fitting, given that during his historical research, Abioto discovered that the museum’s permanent collection was missing a single work by a black Portland artist. This exhibit opens in June 2023 and runs through December.

Abioto knows she wants to do this ever since she picked up that camera and started taking pictures.

“It was pretty easy,” she said. “I mean, my mom’s an artist and my dad’s an artist, so I knew it was possible. So thinking about it, I don’t know if there was ever a point where I thought that I would not be an artist.


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