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CMU art gallery takes on new tone for exhibition highlighting racism

Brett Dahlberg

Picture the typical art gallery wall color – that off-white hue so bland you can walk through an entire museum and never think about what it actually looks like.

That’s usually the color of the interior of Central Michigan University’s art gallery, too. But not this week.

Students repainted the inside of the gallery black for an exhibit called “Highlighted in Black: Hidden Hues” that graphic design professor David Stairs said traces the history of racism in America from the arrival of the first slaves through the currentdisproportionate share of people of color in the criminal justice system.

“This exhibition is not going to change the history of the nation, but in a small way, it takes a huge issue and distills it down as a teaching moment,” Stairs said.

The gallery also highlights the successes of people of color in America -- civil rights leaders, politicians, scientists, artists, athletes, and business executives.

But the pieces that comprise the show are not typical art gallery fare – charts and graphs have replaced paintings and photographs.

Graphic design major Abby Palmateer, who worked on the exhibition, said she worried people might not take the time to appreciate the data she and her classmates tried to convey.

“When you really come into an informational gallery like this, you have to look at the information and read and understand the graphs. It’s not like your usual gallery where you just kind of walk around,” she said.

But as she watched people – no more than 10 at a time in the building, to reduce the chance of spreading the novel coronavirus – move through the exhibit, she noticed them slowly exploring the material. “It’s really nice to see people taking the time and reading the information that we provided,” Palmateer said.

One of those people was Abigail Nalissa, a junior at CMU. “I think that this exhibit is just fantastic. It’s like museum caliber. It’s historical, it’s modern, it’s everything,” she said.

The piece about what hairstyles are considered “professional” in the workplace grabbed her attention, she said. A video projects the results of a Google image search for “professional hair” that shows almost exclusively white women, while black women are overrepresented in an image search for “unprofessional hair.”

“I’m still thinking about that,” Nalissa said.

The exhibit is set to run through the end of this week. After that, the gallery walls will go back to their usual color, but Stairs said he hopes people will remember the message about the persistence of racism in America.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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