The art show “Black Before I Was Born” opened at Roots 101 African American Museum in Louisville in February. But it shut down about two weeks later due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The exhibition’s curator, multimedia artist Ashley Cathey, said the work by the Black artists, most of whom live in Louisville, was too important not to be seen.
“We were basically discussing how we address being Black on a daily basis, and how that shapes our lives, how we also don’t have a lot of control over that narrative as far as how people see us, this happened before we existed,” Cathey said.
In the case of Cathey’s work displayed in the show, she said it’s about the “weaponization” of her skin.
“For some reason, when you look at me, you see a gun, you see a threat, but I’m just skin and flesh and organs like anyone else,” she said. “Unfortunately because I was Black before I was born, I walk into a space and I’m Black before then.”
With the work sitting in the gallery, unable to have an audience, Cathey decided to create a virtual reality experience of the exhibition. That way people could view it, and buy it, without leaving their homes. It’s official opening is Sunday, June 21, and it will be online for about a month.
Art In Virtual Reality
She had recently been a part of a show in Brooklyn, a VR art show that simulated actually being in the gallery.
“It was really cool, and I really liked the fact that you could walk through it,” she said.
Cathey had no experience creating something like this, but she found a digital platform that allowed her to build virtual gallery walls. Then she took photos of the artwork, photographed by local artist Kenyatta Bosman, and pulled those into Photoshop to make 3D renderings. There wasn’t a template for her to use.
“I [didn’t] have a lot to do in quarantine. So I had a lot of time to kind of mess it up and try again and fail.”
She also wanted the VR experience to feel interactive.
“When each person logs in from their IP address, it’ll show a small, little ghostly avatar,” Cathey asid. “So when you’re walking around in the space, you’ll see the people actually walk past you.”
There’s also a chat box. That way you can have conversations with other people in the virtual gallery. She said you can use a VR headset for the immersive experience. But she thinks the computer 2D version is cool too.
VR Presents New Opportunities For Artists To ‘Create Their Own Space’
Louisville oil painter Sandra Charles has several works in the “Black Before I Was Born” exhibit, featuring Black women, “who had overcome obstacles in their lives, and I asked them if they would model for me as African warrior queens.”
Charles loves that this exhibition gets to have a longer life via virtual reality, especially since you don’t have to be in Louisville to go see it now.
“It opens it up to everybody in the world,” Charles said.
She added that it can be a tough slog for Black artists to break into the art world, feeling shut out by many galleries, which are often a major conduit for artists to sell pieces.
“If most of the people that come to their gallery are White, they may not want the African-American art, especially if the work is depicting the African-American experience,” she said. “So I think this virtual just opens it up to everybody.”
Chip Calloway, of MAD MOON VyBE Artwork, agrees.
“You create your own space, and that’s really what we need to [do is] create our own spaces,” Calloway, who is also featured in the “Black Before I Was Born” show, said. “So instead of beating down the doors of certain galleries that wouldn’t let you in, you’re actually creating your virtual four walls.”
Curator Ashley Cathey hopes this VR exhibition will provide exposure for the artists. She wants more people to know about them, to buy their work and to commission them to make new work. But she also wants people to understand that this show speaks to a reality that Black people have lived for centuries.
“What’s happening in the world now, has been happening,” she explains. “It’s just hasn’t been happening in your world and it hasn’t caused chaos in everyone’s world. This is why we’re doing exhibitions to speak through our work, and to be present in a world that also doesn’t always accept us.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.