Illusions and Twisted Truths: Urbano Project’s New Exhibit “ENIGMA: Reactions to Racism”

ENIGMA: Reactions to Racism, is Urbano Project's new exhibit. The multimedia work explores Black Millenials experience with racism. ENIGMA is on view at Urbano in Jamaica Plain until May. 3, 2019. (Photo by María Sánchez/BU News Service)

By M.F. Sánchez
BU News Service

BOSTON — Swatches of bright neon yellow paper, brown burlap fabric, and textured paintings adorn the gray walls of the Urbano Project gallery. The faces of young black people jump out from wooden canvases mounted on the wall, each of them frozen mid-gesture.

The brainchild of Haitian-American artist Chanel Thervil, “ENIGMA: Reactions to Racism,” explores racial prejudice from the perspective of black millennials living in Boston. The exhibit asks the viewer to examine the role they play in racism and is presented by Urbano Project.

The Urbano Project gallery, which is located in Jamaica Plain, is a non-profit art space promoting artists in residence and youth program projects. The gallery features an annual curatorial theme; this year’s theme is resilience and sustainability.

The exhibit embodies what young people of color go through but are often not allowed to feel. For Thervil, conversations around racism tend to be centered around white reactions. “Experiences of racism are layered for everyone, and people of color don’t get to talk about what those layers look like,” she said.

“Enigma” presents these complex conversations through portraits and interviews with each subject. Altogether, seven paintings make up the exhibit; the cutout wooden canvases depict the subjects as they looked when retelling their experiences with racism.

The work is wholly interactive and tactile. Black paint is laid thickly on the canvases to mimic curls and locs; fabric is used in the place of head wraps; neon and black cutouts frame the portraits. What is happening around the picture is just as important as what is happening within it.

Headphones hang on a nail next to five of the portraits, and a small blurb of text prompts the viewer to listen to the subject’s story by pressing on a designated part of it.

Thervil asks three questions of her subjects: first, if racism were an object what would it be? Second, what confuses them about racism? Finally, they are asked to talk about a personal experience with racism.

The interactive quality of the work is perhaps what makes it relatable to viewers. Cindy Yeung, an exhibit attendee from Boston, identified with one of the narratives.

“My favorite piece [is “Gia”],” she said. “I found her story relatable to me. It was somewhere along the lines of a Caucasian and male coworker selectively asking the narrator who is she and where she is from. When the narrator described her culture, the coworker was directing her answer to what he wanted to hear.”

Much of what Thervil is exploring is personal. “Enigma” is the culmination of artistic experimentation and the visual manifestation of her reflections and observations around racism.

Thervil pairs the multimedia work with resources for the viewer. According to her, conversations around racism are not meant to end at the gallery. Instead, attendees are urged to take it upon themselves to make use of the resources made available to them via the Dismantling Racism Works website.

Of the seven portraits, the one that resonates most with exhibit-goers is “Destiny.” The portrait depicts a woman looking to the side in mid-thought, wearing a blue headscarf and white t-shirt.

“If racism were tangible, it’d be a fun-house mirror,” she says, “because racism distorts our perceptions of ourselves and thrives on illusions and twisted truths.”

“ENIGMA: Reactions to Racism” is now on view at the Urbano Project gallery in Jamaica Plain through May. 3, 2019.

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