The immersive art gallery ARTECHOUSE opens an Afrosurrealist exhibition
An interactive art exhibit celebrates the Black global experience, telling the stories of African kings and queens with visuals by Vince Fraser and spoken word poetry by Ursula Rucker.
Nestled between a swanky hotel, a Starbucks and the Social Security Administration building lies a whole different world – one where ten-foot-tall African masks glide past floating buildings and the silhouettes of black women resembling goddesses drift across a psychedelic sky. ARTECHOUSE, an immersive and interactive art space near the Mall, has opened its doors Asë: Afro Frequencies to the public on June 13. The exhibition, which features visuals by London-based Afro-surrealist artist Vince Fraser and audio by poet Ursula Rucker, celebrates the triumph of black people and the experience of the African diaspora.
“Our victory is no mystery!” Rucker told a crowd of more than 75 listeners at an artists’ panel held in the space, echoing a line from his poetry. “Black people, tell your story! »
The panel discussion took place inside the main gallery, where the projections pass through the walls and the floor often seems to shift underfoot. Rucker shared the floor with Fraser, who sported his signature look with a full face mask and dark sunglasses, and Sheldon Scott, an artist and Global Head of Purpose at Eaton Workshop. Ngaire Blankenberg, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, moderated the panel; all proceeds from the evening’s ticket sales went to the museum.
“It’s meaningful to us, it’s powerful for us, and it’s mission-driven,” said ARTECHOUSE Founder and Chief Creative Officer Sandro Kereselidze. “We’re inspiring, educating and empowering the next generation of artists – hopefully more black artists in this field – who can step up and say, ‘Hey, ARTECHOUSE, I want to create something like this, can you help me ?’ And we can.”
Fraser started talking with Kereselidze and his team about a collaboration over three years ago. Ase debuted last summer at ARTECHOUSE’s Miami location, then spent five months on display at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas. But the ARTECHOUSE gallery in DC (which was the first venue to open – Kereselidze has lived here in Washington since 1994) is significantly larger than the other spaces. All of Fraser’s artwork had to be digitally reconstructed to fill the 15,000 square foot gallery. “It was breathtaking,” Fraser said as he entered DC’s exhibit for the first time. “[I was] just stunned to see it on such a large scale.
Visitors, who had the chance to explore the exhibition after the panel discussion ended, also seemed impressed by the artwork. For over an hour, people sat on the floor watching the screenings in the main gallery and wandered around the other four smaller galleries.
“We’ve had a lot of great exhibits, a lot of lovely exhibits, a lot of interesting or fun exhibits, but not all of our exhibits are art at this level,” said Thiago Linck, an ARTECHOUSE host who has had four different experiences. ARTECHOUSE projects until now while working on it. “You can feel the amount of passion, dedication and energy that goes into every part of this.”
The artwork on display includes interactive and immersive pieces, such as a fully mirrored room full of brightly colored changing light wheels; maps of Africa activated by motion sensors projected on the ground, which move and turn under the feet of visitors; and a series of futuristic-looking digital African masks that visitors can virtually try on.
Fraser focuses on African masks in much of his work. This gallery features designs inspired by the rulers of the Ethiopian and Malian empires, traditional symbols of voodoo guardians of the Ogu people, and helmet-like masks of the Yoruba people, among others. (Many artwork titles are also inspired by the Yoruba language; Asepronounced ah-shay, is a philosophical belief of the Yoruba people of West Africa, who invoke power to produce change.)
During the artist panel, Fraser spoke about what the masks symbolize in his work, and his remarks resonated with audience members. “The part that marked me [from Fraser’s commentary] this is how we found a safe space as black people behind our masks – the masks we must wear to appear in white capitalist society,” Nina Breton, a DC-based artist, auctioneer and fundraising consultant, said. “So it gives a new space to the idea of having a safe space. Instead of hiding behind the mask, now we step forward and empower each other and ourselves with the masks worn by our ancestors and those that will be worn in the future.
Most of the audience for the artist panel was black, and Quentin Williams – a black spoken word artist and media company owner from Philadelphia, who came to DC to view the exhibit after being invited by Rucker to -even – said he was also enthusiastic about the diversity present during the performances of the previous evenings. “I saw white people, Indian people, Latinx people, I saw Asian Americans and black people. And it was really interesting to see everyone engaged with art,” Williams said. “It seemed like everyone was just as excited about it. And I really appreciate that as a black American that people can appreciate black history and black art and black perspectives — and enjoying drinks at the same time, and enjoying their own personal experience in the space, and not feeling altered, feeling incorporated in and seen in. Because that helps integrate our experience as Americans.
The exhibit addresses social justice issues of today alongside the stories of historic African kings and queens. The words “Black Lives Matter” run through a tangle of gold chains in part of the main gallery’s immersive video, and protesters holding signs march through futuristic streets. However, for the most part, the exhibit does not focus on persecution, but on celebrating the global black experience.
“Growing up in the public school system, African-American history was often portrayed as very negative. And while that was part, at least in America, of the lived experiences of slavery, we didn’t start there,” Williams said “To see the joy, to see the African features, in a really positive and beautiful light, and to see black silhouettes dancing, and to hear the drums and to know that it’s upbeat, makes it feel more celebratory. And really my experience living as a black person is more joyful. Of course there are ups and downs, but I feel like it’s the party that I’ve been missing all my life.
Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies will continue through fall 2022. ARTECHOUSE DC is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 1238 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets are $17-25 with special rates for families from Monday to Friday.