LOS ANGELES — Spanning the length of a large gallery wall at the California African American Museum is a slim rectangular grid of 100 images of women whose names and identities are unknown. Approaching the wall, the individual portraits of black women emerge into focus with their movement and features punctuated by fluid brushstrokes and pops of watercolor. Many of the women are dancing while others are simply posing. Some appear frenetic, while a few exercise calm, quiet rituals of self-care, like braiding hair. Each of the 9-by-12 inch works on white recycled paper is affixed to the wall by two pins. They are not framed. Freed from the narrow confines of boxes, these unidentified women demand that their stories be told.
In her latest show The Evanesced, artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle confronts society’s compulsion to reframe, mitigate, or eliminate the role of black women in the US. Current headlines demonstrate the social and political forces at play in erasing the contributions and presence of black women. From a tone-deaf Pepsi advertisement to the anemic response of the media and law enforcement after reports of missing black girls in Washington DC surfaced on social media, there are daily reminders of the vulnerability of the black body. When attempts are made to raise awareness on these issues, black women are met with indifference. Even when high-profile, visible black women speak truth to power they are subjected to reductive micro-aggressions that minimize their message. When society ignores overt forms of violence against black women while downplaying the harmful effects of discrimination, we create environments that perpetuate erasure.
Hinkle draws the viewer’s attention to this erasure by bringing 100 women into focus as a strong, cohesive group. The curatorial decision to place the works within a grid creates a bond among these women, establishing a kind of sisterhood. The seven large painted panels lining the remaining gallery walls suggest broader narratives that delve deeper into disappearance, with titles like “Dispersion,” “Eclipse,” and “Dissolve.” In one of the paintings a woman sits with a looming black cloud over her head. Is she buried by the cloud, trying to claw herself out of the black mass toward the light, or is she using the black form as a shield?
The fictional figures in the paintings not only represent the thousands of black women who have been erased by history during the middle passage, slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow; they also depict present-day women bearing the physiological and psychological manifestation of cumulative, transgenerational trauma, including homicide, human trafficking, and domestic violence. Their presence also offers a poignant commentary on how our collective fear of confronting history influences the future. That fear leads to silence and ultimately invisibility. It’s like a bad eraser, one so old that it never erases completely and leaves behind the hazy remains of gray graphite. The more we try to erase, the more visible the mistake — the residue lingers. Indeed, Kenyatta describes her work as an exploration of the residue of history in the “historical present.”
While creating this body of work, Hinkle used her living room as a studio, painting while dancing and listening to dirty blues, underground hip hop, and Baltimore club music. This process informs the kinetic quality of the women she conjured in her paintings, while also revealing an individual narrative for each portrait. On April 27 Hinkle will re-animate the paintings in a performance called “The Evanesced: Embodied Disappearance,” where she will combine costuming, recorded readings, and a musical soundtrack to honor and breathe life into these women who’ve been eclipsed.