Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Journeying through cosmic injustices: 3 artists illuminate the Black experience in sci-fi exhibit, performance

Intergalactic Soul has an art exhibit hanging at 210 Princess St. from Intergalactic Soul collective, which also will feature a 70-minute spoken word and music performance Friday at Bourgie Nights. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — A trifecta of Black artists are bringing their love for sci-fi and space to downtown Wilmington, while also encouraging discourse on racial injustices in a new exhibit.

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Intergalactic Soul navigates the Black experience through the eyes of two adolescent kids who live in a time of space travel and interstellar normativity. 

“We wanted to design everything sort of like it was a children’s book, giving it a comic book flare, all while talking about tough issues,” Charlotte artist Marcus Kiser said. “Jason and I always said, ‘When we are creating, let’s create projects that serve.’ A lot of this stuff is bigger than us.” 

Kiser was speaking about Jason Woodberry, who helped found Intergalactic Soul Collective in 2014. The show started with a few digital art pieces and has grown into a multimedia experience, featuring 2D and 3D works, augmented reality installations and performance art. Locally, the exhibit features around 20 vector illustrations and 3D printed models produced by Woodberry and Kiser; it opened Jan. 18 at 210 Princess St. and remains on display until Feb. 24. 

On Friday Quentin Talley — who joined Intergalactic Soul roughly three years ago — will perform with his band, the Soul Providers, a musical rendition of the exhibit at Bourgie Nights.

Since its introduction a decade ago, Intergalactic Soul has been showcased nationwide. It began as a residency in Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center, but has gone on to be featured at Miami’s Art Basel, the McColl Center and Mint Museum in Charlotte, and Portland Community College in Oregon. 

Woodberry and Kiser initially connected at the Art Institute of Charlotte. The visual artists bonded over their shared love for sci-fi, comic books, and space; “professional nerds,” as Kiser put it. 

Before devising Intergalactic Soul, Woodberry submitted “Dark Matter” and Kiser, “No One Told Me The Stars Had Feelings,” to Art Basel Miami’s “Cosmic Connections.” It was accepted, and from there, the two artists decided to collaborate on something larger. Thus Intergalactic Soul was born.

The artists utilize the Afrofuturism genre, which explores sci-fi, technology, and futuristic realities through a Black cultural lens. Woodberry believes Afrofuturism “gives the Black community the power to completely create their own narrative.”

Because there are still many unknowns about the future and outer space, it makes the possibilities for creating it endless. Woodberry finds freedom of expression when creating in the realm of space. Both he and Kiser said they always unknowingly participated in Afrofuturism. Kiser, for instance, dreamed in his youth of one day working for Marvel; as kids, they were always drawing comic books.

“We would go to comic book conventions and things like that: selling prints and doing sketches,” Woodberry said, “but, no matter how many times you draw Spiderman, you’re not gonna draw it better than the guy who came up with it.” 

Both have integrated their artistic talents into professional careers. Kiser serves as the creative director for MIGN, a custom prosthetics and orthopedics design company, while Woodberry works as a software engineer at Disney.

“I didn’t really know what Afrofuturism was until I was in a fine arts space,” Woodberry said. “I’ve always been interested in it, but never really attached categories to it — to me it was just some dope sci-fi stuff.”

The subject matter of Woodberry’s and Kiser’s digital art centers on two characters: Astro and Pluto. They appear in various artworks — for instance, a powerful piece in the collection features a Black child in an astronaut suit, who has a space gun aimed directly at him. 

The image elicits an emotional reaction, as the child wears an expression of concern and distress. The maroon background adds to the somber atmosphere, intensifying the feeling of unease and tension in the scene. 

Woodberry and Kiser conveyed to Port City Daily that while developing Astro and Pluto, they were insistent on ensuring the boys, roughly ages 9 and 10, were not depicted as victims. In 2014, when Intergalactic Soul was created, police brutality was highly discussed after the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. Woodberry and Kiser both said seeing harmful language about the murders online naturally triggered empathy for the victims and the way they were being portrayed in public.

“We wanted to humanize Black boys and men because we saw ourselves in some of these things,” Kiser said.

Quinten Talley has created a 70-minute theatrical “cosmic narration” to complement the show. The spoken word artist and musician, born and raised in South Carolina, graduated from Winthrop University with a bachelor’s degree in theater performance. In 2006, he created his own nonprofit production company, On Q productions, with a mission to produce “classic, contemporary, and original work that reflects the Black experience.” Addressing social justice issues is part of the territory. 

Talley’s goal is to create art via inclusive channels, which means transcending racial boundaries. He has produced classic Black stories, such as “For Colored Girls” and “Seven Guitars,” along with original pieces like “Miles & Coltrane.”

With his band Soul Providers, Talley will perform funk, R&B, and spoken word to navigate Astro and Pluto through their journey. The performance artist has created a storyline featuring Pluto leaving Earth to visit Astro, who resides in the galaxy. Astro wants to show his human friend where he lives, but on their journeys they encounter conflicts with other extra-terrestrial beings that symbolize abuse of authority or people exhibiting racist behaviors.

Astro and Pluto endure common modern-day Black injustices — police brutality, harmful miseducation, and oppression in the form of aliens, robots, and other interstellar entities. Woodberry said this fictitious world may lead to people letting down their “logical guard” when talking about complex subject matter. There may not really be “Jim Crow Robots” on planet Mars — but no one can say for sure that there isn’t. 

By emphasizing the innocence of the two children, portraying them as small and engaged in play — as seen in as one piece depicting a child blowing cosmic bubbles — conveys a sense of naiveté and nonchalance toward weighty issues surrounding them.

“We are adamant on not wanting the children to be portrayed as victims,” Kiser said, “as they endured all of these social justice issues because at the end of the day they are just curious little Black children, traveling the universe.”

In doing this, the artists attempt to reshape the survivor narrative that can be associated with art done by Black creators. 

The intersection of art and activism is not a contemporary notion. The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) birthed artists — such as Benny Andrews and Viviane Browne — who used works as a catalyst for reform. Numerous Black creators advocated for their civil rights and inherently shifted the self-perception of their communities. 

A new cultural identity and way of presenting Black stories emerged, as the previous Eurocentric styles dismantled. Similar actions are being undertaken by Woodberry, Kiser and Talley in Intergalactic Soul. 

Woodberry believes Black artists should be allowed a safe space for unrestricted and fearless creativity. However, he has observed a prevalent tendency among Black artists to center the traumatic aspects of the Black experience. 

“We are very complex and diverse people — not just victims. You can look at it two different ways, like when people talk about Black history, they always refer to them as slaves, which is true, they were slaves, but they were also philosophers, writers, and architects who survived slavery.”

Woodberry drew a parallel to a well-known 1998 interview featuring writer Toni Morrison and talk show host Charlie Rose. In the interview, the writer said she frequently faces criticism for her perceived “narrowness” in predominantly writing about and addressing a Black audience. Morrison also tells how she can always tell when the “white gaze” — or the assumed white reader — is the center of someone’s work, something she stated she avoids. In her words, it is the idea that, “[Black] lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” 

When referencing this, Woodbury elaborates on his advocacy for Black creators to decenter whiteness from their art. In doing this, the artist will be shifting the need for any appeasel from their work. 

Woodberry and Kiser believe this approach can enhance the effectiveness of their art. 

“We have to approach this with a lack of fear,” Woodberry said. “We had to remove the fear of missing out and the fear of thinking everyone might not get it and just do the work.”

Intergalactic Soul’s art exhibit has 20 pieces on display at 210 Princess St., 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., through Feb. 24. The performance featuring Talley takes place at Bourgie Nights (123 Princess St.) on Jan. 26, 9 p.m., and tickets are $20. Proceeds benefit local nonprofit DREAMS Center for Arts Education. While the art exhibition is free, 40% of artwork sales will also benefit DREAMS.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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