The Colored Section: From Darkness into Light

I entered the gallery early on, so I would have extra time to analyze every piece on display before the guests arrived. Having the honor to represent Visionary Artistry Magazine meant I needed to get every detail I could, so I could get it done right. Everyone was still setting up the displays, as  DJ Hustleman radio mic-checked his equipment. As I made my way to the center floor, I mentally prepared myself to zone into focus mode. I needed to understand what I was about to see enough to put it into words. Not all art can evoke an emotion out of me. I either feel something or I feel nothing. There is no in-between.

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Even if I could feel something, explaining that emotion is not so easy for me. For these reasons, I was nervous.  As I pulled out my notepad and approached the artwork, I was afraid I wouldn’t understand it. I paused before the first piece titled, “Get Lifted.” The sound of the DJ’s music faded in the background while I stared with my notepad in hand thinking, “I know exactly what this painting means.” Immediately, I identified with the piece in my own way, because it drew out my emotion. Little did I know, every piece would do the same.

VA Mag Founder and Creative Director J.Q. Franklin also known as “Jay” is the mastermind behind the brush. His art show, The Colored Section took place at Southwest Atlanta’s The B Complex studio. The solo exhibit was his second, and it featured twelve large paintings, all following the same obvious theme: the emotions of people of color and the struggles they face in America.  Each acrylic-on-canvas painting was an African-American portrait that dug deep into the minds of viewers. The artwork was arranged, seemingly in a specific way that allowed contrasting pieces to complement the others. Where one piece represented silence, another represented noise. Although some pieces contained a splash of color, the majority of the exhibit was in black and white.  “I like doing black and white, because black and white gives more emotion,” Jay told me. “I try to create the emotion of each figure. It may be through the lips or through the eyes, but I just want to make sure that I’m conveying a message to the viewer.”

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The messages shouting from Jay’s artwork definitely reached his audience. Gradually, over the first half-hour of the art show, the gallery filled with spectators. People stood before each piece, nodding and pointing. Agreeing and disagreeing. The differences in perception struck me as the most significant highlight of the exhibit. Five different viewers could look at one piece and give you five different interpretations, all of which intercepted at the same conclusions. Different routes; same destination. I spent the evening digging into people’s minds to find out what they saw, what they felt, and what they liked. Overall, the feeling was the same: Black struggle and injustice in America. A community tired and aching, and in need of their voices to be heard. Everyone identified with at least one piece, applying it to their own experiences.

“It really represents how we feel,” one observer said. She was referring to the largest piece on display, and the artist’s favorite, “Silent Protest 2.” The painting featured three black characters, each with their mouths covered with a different patch of color: Red, White, and Blue. Their facial expressions varied, especially in the eyes, you saw either weariness, pain, or defiance.  Aside from the emotion, the figures’ mouths were covered in three  colors just like the American flag, signifying the American censorship and ignorance of black injustice.

The first piece I identified with, “Get Lifted,” included a man whose face was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. I assumed he was smoking marijuana (maybe), but I wasn’t positive. I only knew that the man was in his own peaceful cloud of Zen. I don’t smoke, so for me that Zen cloud was music. The viewers had varying interpretations ranging from a cloud of ignorance to a cloud of violence, all with understandable explanations. I spent time with an anonymous spectator throughout the show. She walked with me analyzing and breaking down the paintings she saw with intricate, poetic detail.

Out of all of the ones that she pointed out, “Get Lifted” caught her attention the most, and when I asked her why, she simply said: “Because when I’m home, that’s me,” she replied with a wink and a smile. Clearly, she was referring to a Mary Jane cloud. For her, that piece needed no analyzing. Just a personal connection.

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The artist explained the  meaning of the piece to me. “It’s an actual photo I saw online and I just liked the symbolism. You’ve heard the expression ‘your mind is up in the clouds’… it’s about motivation and him being more in touch with a higher being than himself.”  I absolutely love how that painting meant so many things to so many people.

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The star of the show, however, was the piece titled, “I Am.” The powerful painting illustrated a crowd of protesters carrying different posters, one of which read, “We are living in a police state.” Red graffiti tagged on the front of the painting read, “I am a man,” with “man” crossed out, and “king” written below it. In the upper right corner, “Rebel” was tagged in the same fashion. When I asked which pieces were their favorites, the guests almost always listed “I Am” as one of them. “I am rebelling against what they say I am,” Tracee, one of the viewers, passionately said to me about the piece. “And I am declaring myself ‘king.’” She paused to take in the painting. “It’s so powerful,” she said. Later on, I found another guest standing before the same painting, seemingly absorbed in it. When I asked her what she saw, she simply replied, “Everything I see every day currently. Everything on the news.”

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One man, who went by the name Nguvu, told me of the raw emotion it drew up inside him. He referred to the sporadic use of the color red in some of the black and white artwork. “In Africa, red symbolized war and bloodshed,” he said. “It represents anger, and I get it because I’m angry.  We’re numb to the realities around us.” He briefly looked around the gallery, nodding his head. “It’s dope.” Clearly, the artwork was striking chords with people in the room, sending a melodic reverberation of awe and raw feeling across the gallery that pushed its way over the music. Jay was accomplishing his goal.

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Not everything was taken in as anger, oppression, and aggression. Some pieces represented black pride and royalty. Two canvases displayed side-by-side. One, titled “Queen,” was a simple depiction of black women’s value in the dark. The other, titled “Young Simba,” showed a young black man with golden hair, half of his face was shaded dark.

By the end of the night, out of the twelve paintings in the exhibit, at least half of them were marked as “sold” from the gallery floor. The two royalty pieces were purchased right off the wall, long before the exhibit ended, proving just how powerful they really were.

The Colored Section exhibit was an amazing mesh of thought-provoking artistic expression, and the imaginative minds of its viewers who understood the messages J.Q. was trying to deliver, each in their very own ways. “Every time I put art out, I want to make it bigger and better for the viewer,” he told me after the show. “I just want the viewer to feel something. I’m not really interested in the perfect painting. I just want to pull some type of emotion out of the viewer. If I’ve done that, then I feel like I’ve done my job.” The artist definitely achieved his mission. He’s managed to pull our emotion out of the dark and into the light, and now we will all wait to see just how bright the artist will become.

-Chris Simmons