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Taking on Titian

Black women artists add their point of view to Titian exhibit at Gardner Museum

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Taking on Titian
(clockwise from top right) Jomama Jones PHOTO: courtesy of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Toshi Reagon PHOTO: Flora Hanitijo, Helga Davis PHOTO: ISGM, Fabiola Jean-Louis PHOTO: Aundre Larrow, Claudia Rankine, PHOTO: Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times.

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, rows of famous paintings line the walls for the “Titian: Women, Myth & Power” exhibition. On Thursday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m., Visiting Curator of Performing Arts Helga Davis presents “City of Women II,” an evening of performance that very clearly illustrates what is missing from those famous oils: women of color.

The event is a continuation from Davis’ 2019 “City of Women” response to the Gardner’s Botticelli exhibition. With a collection of four artists — Claudia Rankine, Toshi Reagon, Jomama Jones and Fabiola Jean-Louis —Davis launches a dialogue with the Titian show.

“Beautiful as it is, it also points so clearly at whose story is missing from the mythology and from this place of power,” says Davis. “Despite all of the progress that we’ve made, so many of us exist at the edges of one story or another, one painting or another, one system
or another.”

One such character is the only woman of color in the Titian show, a faint figure sketched into the edge of a painting. Rankine, an author of five poetry books, including “Citizen: An American Lyric,” has written a piece addressing that woman. Davis herself will read the poem during City of Women II.

Fabiola Jean-Louis designs stunning historic gowns, corsets, shoes and other garments entirely out of paper. Her “Rewriting History” series addresses the relationship between history, memory and identity. By using paper as her medium, Jean-Louis refers to a time when paper signified not just money and the power associated with it, but also the power to determine a Black person’s freedom. Several of these garments will be utilized and worn during the City of Women II event.

“I love this idea that you have these forms that define the bodies of women but are also made to disappear,” says Davis of Jean-Louis’s work. “They’re made to not exist forever. And just as metaphor I find these a completely beautiful concept.”

Jones and Reagon, two impactful performers coming from different stage traditions, will perform live at the event in response to the Titian exhibit. Jones is the alter ego of Daniel Alexander Jones and acts as a kind of guardian angel bringing both ancestral wisdom and messages from the future to the stage. Reagon is a composer and musician raised in the Americana tradition of folk, funk, blues and rock. Her work is an ongoing advocacy mission for the rights of all people.

These five powerful artists, including Davis herself, will bring perspective and analysis to Titian and his work. Davis says of the audience, “What I always hope is that they feel closer to some truth in themselves and in the world, and have more tools and inspiration to take action.”

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