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Marla McLeod greets the quarantined art world with optimism

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Marla McLeod greets the quarantined  art world with optimism
“Baldwin” by Marla McLeod, 2020. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

When Marla McLeod began working on her thesis for her MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, she had no idea the world would turn upside down in the middle of her final year. As COVID-19 shut down galleries and canceled her in-person thesis exhibition, McLeod began translating her powerful, large-scale pieces into pandemic-friendly formats.

“I actually find it quite exciting,” says McLeod. “I am optimistic in that what it forces our society to do … is think differently. You have to think outside the box, you have to consider other options.”

“Baldwin” by Marla McLeod, 2020. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

“Baldwin” by Marla McLeod, 2020. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

For her, one of those options was exhibition with the AREA Code Art Fair. The virtual art fair included in-person art displays with pop-up shows in empty store windows. A few pieces from McLeod’s thesis project are displayed in storefronts on Washington Street in Downtown Crossing and in the windows of Gallery 263 in Cambridge. It’s an opportunity to bring many eyes to a few of the powerful works that delve into Black history and culture.

“Baldwin” is one of the pieces situated in Downtown Crossing. The dramatic garment was inspired by both Black history and the drag ballroom culture. James Baldwin was a perfect subject, as both an influential Black figure and a member of the LGBTQ community.

The garment is an intricate amalgamation of references to Black history. “I took Baldwin’s quotes and I used that to create the actual patterning on the skirt,” says McLeod. “In reference to Black pride, I made the skirt in the style of an Egyptian pharaoh; I wanted the cape to be extremely grand.” Contemporary allusions also peek out from the fabric, including raised fists and a black hood, referencing the dangerous profiling Black men in hoodies undergo.

In the artist’s initial gallery plan, these garment sculptures were paired with tapestries and paintings. One tapestry entitled “LaKisha Langley” is situated behind “Baldwin” and several of the paintings are hung in the Gallery 263 window. The paintings show Black individuals of various backgrounds boldly confronting the viewer. They’re meant to be paired with tapestries that have quotes from the painting subject’s heritage stitched in their native language. McLeod illustrates with these pairings that Black heritage is not one universal experience but diverse, broad and sweeping.

Though McLeod’s exhibition was supposed to be on a much larger, in-person scale, she’s hopeful about the change this moment can bring to the art world. “It’s really exciting as an artist to have to think of new ways to present your work,” she says. “I think that sort of baseline of thinking in and of itself could possibly permeate into other people’s lives and it could be a better space, one that is more inclusive.”