Crying for Justice: A pair of artists explore America’s suffering in a show at Bernal Gallery

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Alanna Airitam.

But now she’s like a comet soaring over Tucson, introducing her work in multiple venues. 

A Black women who recently moved to the Old Pueblo, she has 10 stunning works at Pima Colleges’s Bernal Gallery. The two-person show also features artist Wayne Martin Belger.

Many of Airitam’s pieces are richly colored photos of present-day African Americans—but these portrait works look more like Renaissance paintings than photos. In fact, many of the works are inspired by the paintings of the Golden Age of Art in the Netherlands of the 17th century.

The most extraordinary piece is an image of a magisterial Black woman in a bountiful crown of flowers and a dress of yellow satin. She confidentially holds a key in her hand, as if she had the keys to the castle. Her title? “Queen Mary.” 

Over at the Tucson Museum of Art, another of Airitam’s beautifully colored photographs is in the still life show “Still Here.” Her piece, “Weekend at Nana’s,” with its silver pitcher, flowers and grapes, is reminiscent of Dutch still lifes.  

And in April, the Center for Creative Photography plans a solo show of 10 of her “Golden Age’” portrait works, including “Queen Mary” and others now at Pima. Needless to say, getting that solo exhibition at CCP is no small thing for an artist. 

Airitam’s has been better known outside Tucson; last year, she was one of four winners of the San Diego Art Prize. And she has shown her work at a gallery in Chicago, and gotten media attention from the BBC and others.

Born in Queens, N.Y., Airitam is a self-taught artist who learned her trade in the museums of New York City. 

“Art museums were my classrooms,” she writes, “and Renaissance painters with their masterful rendering of light (were) my teachers. Their works were my inspiration to make art celebrating Blackness…” 

New York City has plenty of artworks from Holland’s Golden  Age—Vermeer at the Met, Rembrandt at the Met and the Morgan Library—and Airitam boldly uses their gorgeous colors and light. Still, the Dutch paintings that she loves rarely featured Black people.

 Some Amsterdam artists of the Golden Age in that era made paintings of Africans—Rembrandt alone painted or drew some 26 images of Black people, most of them workers in his neighborhood. Yet there were few paintings of Blacks in the fine clothes and feathered hats of the rich; works that did include them often fostered demeaning stereotypes. Airitam, placing her present-day models in the past, has aimed to create images of Blacks as “beautiful, powerful people who belonged.” 

 Among her “Golden Age” portraits are “Saint Nicolas,” a wonderful picture of a boy wearing an antique red coat, as proud as a king’s son, and “Saint Sugar Hill,” a woman reclining in white silk. 

 Though Airitam borrows techniques from centuries ago, her works are contemporary; they are sophisticated photos, not paintings. And she’s devised her own techniques to get the results she wants: minimal lighting and hand varnishing to get a “painterly quality.”

For a second series, “Crossroads,” a darker look at Black lives today, she uses resin, metals, varnish and gold leaf on the photos; “the weight of metal frames speaks to the constraints people of color live with,” she writes. In these moody images, lit by a soft Rembrandt light, African Americans face away from the camera and look toward an uncertain future with some hope. 

 A horrifying piece about the 1963 Birmingham bombing in Alabama pictures the four young Black young girls who were killed by white supremacists in an Alabama Church on a Sunday morning. Their murderers walked free for many years before they were finally convicted. The artist brings a stark title to this mournful work: “What if we could do 1963 all over again?” 

“White Privilege,” a challenging new piece created during the pandemic, is a sequel of sorts to the photo of the murdered girls. A triptych of three photos made in tribute to three murdered Black people, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. But the photos picture an actual dead pig surrounded by rotting food—a typical symbol in Golden Age art that reminds us that one day we all will die. Clumps of raw cotton scattered about remind us of slavery and sharecropping. The pig itself is a symbol of the greed of the wealthy, and three candles flickering represent the African American dying and the dead, “smothered and unable to breath.” 

Like Airitam, Wayne Martin Belger cries for justice. A well-known photographer, Belger has traveled to Lesbos to volunteer and take pictures of their suffering; he has also worked in Chiapas, Mexico, photographing the Zapatista, and at Standing Rock, the Middle East and many other sites of conflict.

 His current work is closer to home. “The Beauty of Decay,” about a dying homestead, is one of one of his two massive installations in the American Renaissance exhibition at Bernal Gallery. The piece is lyrical and lonely, with pictures of dusty land and lost belongings.

“The Second Amendment Photo Project” brings Belger to gun-loving parts of the United States. An entire wall is filled with U.S. flags, real guns and photo portraits of gun owners proudly embracing their huge automatic weapons in their arms. 

The work also digs into the connection between devout Evangelicals and devout gun owners. Belger, who frequently handmakes his own elaborate cameras, uses that 3D skill to create an elaborate shrine with real pistols that decorate a Jesus-on-the-cross statue. Tiny flags flank the dead Jesus and automatic rifles hang below him. A sign reads: In God We Trust. 

Tucked inside his homemade camera, now part of the installation, are chambers of dirt that Belger retrieved from a few killing grounds with the intention to mourn those murdered by guns. He has dirt from Methodist Episcopal, a Black church in South Carolina where nine church members were shot to death. And he has soil from schools where children were mercilessly shot down by gunmen: Columbine (12 students, one teacher) and Parkland (14 students, three staff,) both high schools, and Sandy Hook Elementary, where six school workers and 20 first-graders lost their lives to guns.   

American Renaissance

Exhibition of work by Alanna Airitam and Wayne Martin Belger

Through Dec. 10

Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery at Pima College West Campus, 2202 W. Anklam Road

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday.

Free 

Masks required inside campus buildings

www.pima.edu/cfa-gallery; 520-206-6942

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