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At ICA SF, ‘Resting Our Eyes’ Affirms Black Women’s Right to Leisure

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in a textile work, a Black woman in colorful clothing rests sitting on the ground and smiling against a blue backdrop
Adana Tillman’s ‘Wild Thoughts,’ 2020. Appliqued fabric on hand dyed textiles with hand embroidery and beading. (Courtesy of the artist)

The late Toni Morrison once reflected on her work as a Nobel Prize-winning Black woman author who wrote about Black people by saying: “I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

That sentiment rang true for me when I visited Resting Our Eyes, an exhibition that curators Tahirah Rasheed and Autumn Breon created to celebrate Black women “through the lens of leisure and physical adornment.” It’s on view at the new Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco through June 25.

In this space, I was the center. My style. My attitude. My adornment. Resting our eyes meant resting my eyes. And the rest of the exhibition’s viewers — none of whom, at the time I visited, were Black women — metaphorically moved over to where I was.

Oakland-based artist Sadie Barnette’s ‘Easy in the Den,’ 2019. Archival pigment print, photography of found film with overlaid rhinestone. (Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco)

To be clear, this exhibition is for everybody to experience, enjoy and reflect on, not just Black women. But one doesn’t have to look very hard to see all the reasons this exhibition was conceived to center the Black woman’s peace of mind, body and soul. As young girls, we’re targeted for punishment at school. We experience higher rates of intimate partner violence than any other racial group. Our physical pain is dismissed or overlooked in the health care system. And we navigate a whole lot of micro- and macro-aggressions at work.

In their curators’ statement, Rasheed, a Cal alum, and Breon, a Stanford graduate, reference a 1918 ordinance in Greenville, South Carolina that “jailed or fined Black women if they could not prove ‘regular and useful employment.’”

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So, yeah — the idea of Black women getting to just be? Getting to rest? It’s radical.

a neon sculpture with a red outline of hands and the words 'care is the antidote to violence' in purple
Ja’Tovia Gary’s ‘Citational Ethics (Saidiya Hartman, 2017),’ 2020. Neon, glass, wire and metal. (Courtesy of Collection of Bob Rennie; Vancouver, Canada)

A radical spirit is what fueled Rasheed and Breon, who turned to the words of the Combahee River Collective when imagining the exhibition. The collective was a Black feminist lesbian socialist organization, active in the mid- to late-70s, that published the influential Combahee River Collective Statement. Their statement introduced the concept of “identity politics” as necessary in the fight for liberation, writing, “we believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity…”

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Put more plainly: When Black women are free, society benefits.

Inspired by this philosophy, Breon told Harper’s Bazaar that she and Rasheed “kept on coming back to the idea of ‘What is the aesthetic of a free Black woman?’”

Their answer to that question is in the new and existing works on display from 20 Black artists — including four from the Bay Area – who span generations and mediums, including mixed media, photography, painting, video, textile and sculpture.

I reflected on my time with a few of these works below.

Mickalene Thomas, ‘Love’s Been Good to Me Too #2’

a textile work shows a Black woman dressed in colorful clothes sitting against colorful cushions
Mickalene Thomas’ ‘Love’s Been Good To Me #2,’ 2010. Rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel. (Courtesy of Collection of Jeffrey N. Dauber and Marc A. Levin)

Brooklyn-based Mickalene Thomas, one of my favorite visual artists, is an iconic voice when it comes to showcasing Black women in repose. The Black woman subject in Love’s Been Good to Me Too #2 is towering in size and bold in her bejeweled presentation. With her confident pose, glittering eyeshadow and colorful resort wear, I couldn’t help but hear “Take Up Space Sis” (from the official, Rasheed-curated Resting Our Eyes Spotify playlist) playing in my mind: “I hype me up, I gas me up / Take up space sis, got more room with this.”

Lava Thomas, ‘Clouds of Joy’

a textile work shows different sizes and shades of blue circles on a white background
Lava Thomas’ ‘Clouds of Joy,’ 2021. Tambourines, leather, suede, acrylic mirror, blue acrylic discs and ribbon. (Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery)

I stood in front of Clouds of Joy, by Berkeley’s Lava Thomas, for a time. I took in the piece as a whole, as well as my own blue-tinted reflection in the mirrored surfaces (I must say, it’s a flattering hue). Reading in the exhibition guide that Clouds of Joy is part of Thomas’ “ongoing project that recalls Civil Rights Era protest songs in the African American music tradition” deepened my experience of it.

Traci Bartlow, ‘Girl Boss’

a color photograph shows a young Black woman in green pants and a dark shirt and sneakers sitting on the street looking at the camera
Traci Bartlow’s ‘Girl Boss,’ 1996. Photograph. (Courtesy of the artist)

When I saw the aptly titled Girl Boss, a photograph taken in 1996 by Oakland-born Traci Bartlow, the young woman’s resolute pose and stare grabbed me. So unbothered. I immediately thought of the words of Zora Neale Hurston: “I love myself when I am laughing … and then again when I’m looking mean and impressive.”

Lauren Halsey, ‘Untitled’

Lauren Halsey, ‘Untitled,’ 2021. Synthetic hair on wood, 110 x 56 x 8 inches. (Photo by Allen Chen; Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery)

One of the last pieces I observed, this work — created with synthetic hair bundles — was literally a soft place to land. I’ve been in a space of personally expanding the colors that I wear, from clothes to jewelry to hair, in a way that feels more daring to me, yet more authentic to my true self. This piece felt like another affirmation to lean into the freedom of expression I’ve been feeling. It’s one of many freedoms that was once denied to Black women, as Rasheed and Breon drive home in their curators’ statement.

Ironically, I’ve written all this while tired and not having experienced the most restful sleep the last few weeks (deadlines, oh so many deadlines). But among the many affirmations Rasheed and Breon’s exhibition left me with was this: Just like art is a practice, so is rest. It’s a radical and necessary one, in fact. (Let the Nap Ministry say “Amen!”)

Now if you’ll excuse me while I rest my eyes.

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‘Resting Our Eyes,’ curated by Tahirah Rasheed and Autumn Breon, is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco through June 25. www.Details here.

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