Kansas African American museum exhibition spotlights women artists of color


The works in The Kansas African American Museum’s exhibition “Shades of Strength and Beauty” portray women of color in all their complexity: defiant, nurturing, wise, proud, relaxed and celebratory.

“I looked for pieces that showed women of color in ways that they aren’t necessarily conventionally shown,” says Paris Cunningham, who is both the curator and an exhibiting artist.

Eight students and alumni from Wichita State’s School of Art, Design and Creative Industries contributed work to the exhibition, a juried show of portraits of and by 20 women of color. A gallery of work from "Shades of Strength and Beauty" appears below this story.

Cunningham said she was attracted to work that portrayed softness and femininity as well as strength. One of her favorite pieces is “Boy, Bye!” a painting by Wichita State alumna Joanna Herman. “Boy, Bye!” reinterprets Roy Lichtenstein’s “Ohhh ... Alright...” The iconic pop art painting depicts a white woman cradling a phone, seemingly disappointed by (but resigned to) what the man on the other end just said. In contrast, Herman’s Black subject has no time for passive agreement.

“I think there’s great strength in how brash it is,” says Cunningham, who first encountered Herman’s work at R Coffeehouse in Riverside.

Cunningham is also inspired by the work of Lily Guillen, a third-year graduate student at Wichita State. She pauses in front of “Incepción,” a large mixed media piece that includes an unfocused black and white photo of a woman. If you look a little closer, you can see the subject is blurred by movement; she seems to be looking downward and to the right, then left and quickly back again. The photo is affixed to canvas in part with lines of gold embroidery, which match the gold-painted matchsticks that criss-cross the photograph and embellish the canvas.

“It does what good art makes you do,” Cunningham says. “It makes you look into it, but also past it, to the concepts behind the piece.”

Another veteran of Wichita State’s art studios is Verlene Mahomes, who utilizes a 3D technique she says came to her in a dream. Instead of using a paintbrush to suggest the drape of a robe or twist of a turban, the artist manipulates canvas to release the folds from their two-dimensional plane.

Of the four Mahomes paintings in the exhibition, Cunningham’s sentimental favorite is the most traditional. It portrays Cunningham’s mother, Kansas State Senator Oletha Faust-Godeau.

“I have to be on my stuff at the museum, because my mom is watching,” Cunningham jokes.

Though most of the exhibited works are portraits, a couple of artists contributed more abstract pieces. These include current Wichita State art student Jaquilyn Johnson-Holder, whose moody floral photographs double as homages to Maya Angelou, Laverne Cox and Malala Yousafzai, each a meaningful role model to a young LGBTQ+ artist of color. WSU alumna Angela Rangel contributed three of her architectural ceramic sculptures, which explore trauma by making connections between decaying structures and the human body.

Other notable works include Janice Thacker’s “Mothering a Daughter” and “Mothering a Son,” both rendered in the artist’s distinctive style of portraiture. Thacker, a well-known Kansas artist and alumna of Wichita State’s art education program, depicts contemporary Black life by painting negative spaces on black canvas and using white to outline the figures. The effect might remind you of the Rotoshop computer animation used in films such as Richard Linklater’s 2001 “Waking Life.” Thacker’s style is all her own, though. Domestic scenes rendered in dramatic jewel tones have a jaunty quality, even as they make a statement about the visibility of Black children and families.

Cunningham has a special connection to Thacker, who administers the art fair Art That Touches Your Heart. The annual exhibition of Black art was the first place Cunningham ever showed her work publicly. As a young artist, the experience had a big impact. That’s part of the reason that “Shades of Strength and Beauty” includes work by students Kaylee and Kennedy Hope, sisters and Wichita high school students.

If the Hopes represent the next generation, works by Elizabeth Catlett and Gwendolyn Knight connect the exhibition to a lineage of prominent Black women artists. Cunningham selected these works from the museum’s permanent collection, which includes more than 300 individual works of art.

Catlett’s lithograph “Madonna” depicts the mother of Jesus embracing not one, but two children. The trio are bound by an arch, the same shape as the stained-glass museum windows reflected on the surface of the print.

It's cool in the museum's galleries, and the atmosphere is peaceful — reverent, even. It's a lovely place to look at art on a hot summer afternoon.

A selection of work from "Shades of Strength and Beauty"

To see the photos at full size, click on one and use the arrows to scroll through.

  • Framed portraits of three pop icons with Mexican heritage: Lupita N'yongo, Demi Lovato and Thalia.
  • A painting of a Black woman holding a phone with a word bubble that says "Boy Bye."
  • Four large paintings of women.
  • Three framed photographs of flowers hang on either side of a window.
  • Other pieces of art are reflected in the glass of two frames photographs of flowers.
  • Two paintings, each depicting a mother and child, hang above three ceramic sculptures that look a little like decaying structures surrounded by metal armature.
  • Three works of art hanging on a wall: a black and white photograph, a lithograph, and a small mixed media piece.
  • A mixed media piece that includes a blurry photo of a woman. The background of the photo is embroidered with gold lines, and the canvas is decorated with gold-painted, burned match sticks.
  • Stained glass windows are reflected in the glass of a framed lithograph that depicts a woman holding two children.
  • Art work is hung on white panels suspended from the ceiling.
  • The exterior of The Kansas African American Museum, a columned building with a peaked roof that sits on a street paved with bricks.