Face to face with race
Exhibition explores racism in the nonprofit sector
Local artist Chanel Thervil’s first solo show “ENIGMA: Reactions to Racism” is on view at Urbano Project through May 3. Her large-scale multi-media installations examine the black millennial experience in Boston, particularly in nonprofit spaces.
When Thervil first moved to Boston from New York, the Haitian-American artist was surprised by her interactions with white residents. “When I got here I was really surprised by the way intellectualism and liberalism were really smoke and mirrors,” she says. Thervil works as an educator and advocate in the nonprofit space and found that there too, where progress was supposed to be rampant, she encountered significant racism.
“In a lot of experience I’ve had with nonprofits I was the only black woman on staff,” Thervil says. “I wanted to shine a light on the nuances of being a person of color in a nonprofit space.”
For “ENIGMA” Thervil painted portraits of millennials of color who work in or with nonprofits in Boston. These portraits are at the center of each installation. They pop off the wall out at the viewer, not just by virtue of being painted on wood, but because of the dynamism captured in each subject. Thervil says she photographs her subjects while they’re talking to capture unique moments of expression, and that movement is skillfully rendered in the final portrait.
“I interview people as I photograph them,” says Thervil. That’s always been a part of her painting practice, a way to see the interior of the person as she paints them. But for “ENIGMA” she harnessed the power of those interviews further. Thervil recorded each interview wherein she asked a set of questions like “If racism were an object what would it be?” and installed them into the portraits at Urbano. When viewers put on the provided headphones and touch areas of the portrait they can hear the subjects talking about their own racially charged encounters.
Around the portraits and audio installation Thervil has painted patterns on the wall expressive of each subject and their story. Some of these are adinkra symbols, a system of figures native to West Africa that represent concepts or aphorisms. In the installation they round out Thervil’s multi-dimensional portrait of the subject and their experience.
On one wall under Thervil’s artist statement she’s placed literature about racism, identifying it, and preventing it. She’s also created a selfie space for viewers to take their own portraits and bring their own experience to the exhibit. The opening reception for “ENIGMA: Reactions to Racism” is Thursday, February 21.
“There are many people that have been emboldened by the Trump administration,” says Thervil. “I consider myself someone who’s been emboldened in a positive way. I’m asking people to absorb a lot, what’s important to me is that they reflect.”