Barbara Earl Thomas’ new body of work carries within it the sediments of history and grapples with race and the color line. At the heart of her new work is a story of life and death, hope and resilience—a child’s survival. She takes us on a journey where she gives us clues, tracks and traces—the raw elements of the armor, like the one Black parents construct for their children at birth, to help them navigate the perilous landscape that is our country’s color problem.
Race is an old story, how we traverse it is baked into our institutions as much as into our psyche and perception. With her quietly glowing portraits of young Black boys and girls, begun in the summer of 2019, Thomas puts before us the humble question; can we see, and be present to, the humanity, the trust, the hopes and dreams of each of these children. “Throughout her work,” notes writer Halima Taha, “light is symbolized by colorful hand-cut lines that articulate the silhouettes of members of a striving community. Light, by definition, is what makes things which are hidden in the dark manifest.”
It is no accident that in the aesthetic choice of her compositions and installation, Thomas draws on the ambience of a sanctuary or chapel. The biblical stories of the New Testament underscore that the value of each human life is part of the myth we say we believe. Within the folds of the same text, the alignment of good and evil with light and darkness, gave rise to subsequent distortions by white theologians along racial lines. Today, the unequal value assigned to black and white, light and dark, reverberates everywhere and informs the way we see, feel and interpret the world and each other.
As Thomas explains, “On the terrain of the soul, a war is waged between light and shadow. In the clash we struggle toward a change of heart, a reassignment of values, of sin, and redemption. It’s a counterintuitive grace I seek for young dark faces marked at birth; a reprieve from the crime we’ve held against them. It is evidenced in this stain—something sinister, a beguiling knowing ascribed to their dark skin, there foreshadowed. We are confounded, when at the scene of the crime, the youngest among them do not confess to what they must surely know about the house that caught on fire, the bullet to the head, the rape in the alley that somehow they deserved, because they knew something in advance and didn’t act to save themselves. We are all in on it. I am not innocent. In this exhibition, I ponder what comes with our preconceived notions of innocence and guilt, assigned in shades of light and dark, black and white.”
Thomas’ exhibition is an invitation to gather and reflect on the implications of values, internalized and projected. At the heart of her project lies the hope for grace and truth. A consideration of the trusting young faces before us, and aspirations we harbor for a future marked by equality and grace, will require each of us to begin with a journey into the geographies of our mind.
Max and Helen Gurvich Exhibition Endowment
Contributors to the SAM Fund