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Black St. Louis Artists Explore Generations Of Racial Trauma And How Joy Heals

Kai Smith
Visual artist Lillian Gardner sits next to her nine-panel paintings at the Griot Museum of Black History. Gardner is one of seven artists who will showcase their work at the museum as part of the exhibit "Listen, Look: A Reconciliatory Journey Through Black Grief and Joy" on Saturday.

St. Louis dancer Shontay Gavin has experienced an insurmountable amount of grief and trauma in the past two years.

In 2019, her sister was murdered in St. Louis. Gavin saw five members of her family and friends die in one month — three of COVID-19 and two of violence. Last September, she slipped and broke her right leg. She lost her job in January. And at the beginning of February, doctors found a blood clot on her daughter’s brain.

After Gavin broke her leg, she did not have the confidence to continue dancing professionally. However, she went to physical rehabilitation and used her art to help her cope with the pain she was experiencing. Gavin said dancing helps her remain joyful.

Shontay Gavin
Dancer Shontay Gavin said dancing is cathartic for her. She said she carries grief but dances to release those negative thoughts.

“Black joy is freedom. That’s Black joy to me,” Gavin said. “[You] don't have to worry about being shot up, free to live, love and have life in abundance as others do.”

African American artists have long used their talents to overcome the agony of American life. The struggle to survive has birthed great art forms — from the blues to hip-hop. Today, their work often delineates the nation’s racist past, seeing friends die by police violence, the loss of loved ones and, these days, the trauma of COVID-19.

Black artists in the St. Louis region will showcase works that connect grief and joy in a virtual exhibit from the Griot Museum on Saturday. Their art is part of a multimedia installation — “Listen, Look: A Reconciliatory Journey Through Black Grief and Joy.”

Gavin will perform “Cool Water,” a solo performance that incorporates Egyptian movements. She uses intense arm and body gestures as a way to release stress and encourage happiness.

The exhibit aims to help Black people in the St. Louis region heal from decades of systemic racism, exhibit curator Precious Musa said.

The installation formed from a class project that challenged Musa, a Washington University in St. Louis graduate poetry student, to think of a creative way to disrupt the legacy of racism in St. Louis.

“Most of American history is that of people literally being three-fourths of a human and being shackled and being forced to do labor,” Musa said. “All this trauma, which becomes a generational trauma, so that's how I'm thinking about Black grief, like how these histories and how this violence still very much show up in our every day.”

Musa said the world can point to the summer protests to save Black lives as a way to understand why Black people are always grieving.

According to the Journal of Death and Dying, Black Americans are more likely to suffer from prolonged grief. And that’s compounded by the large number of African Americans dying during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chattel slavery and Jim Crow is over, but the pain of racism still exists for Black people, said Dr. Kira Banks, a St. Louis University associate professor of psychology.

Banks said African Americans have endured chronic racial trauma that does not allow them to grieve properly.

“When it comes to grief for Black folks, the reality is that you can potentially get lost in it,” Banks said. “It's so deep and historic and profound that sometimes it's scary to feel it because you feel like you could get swallowed up by it.”

Kai Smith
Jason Vasser-Elong paints and writes to express the grief he has as a Black man. He said he hopes his works opens up a larger discussion in the Black community about how Black men handle stress and the stigma behind mental health.

Visual artist Jason Vasser-Elong is trying not to let his misery consume him. He is grieving the death of his best friend, who died by suicide in December. Vasser-Elong said his agony is deep, but he finds solace in painting and writing. For the exhibit, he created “Late Autumn,” a two-panel painting that expresses gloom and glee through nature.

Vasser-Elong said his compounded grief is connected to the pain he feels when he thinks about how Black Americans are still suffering from police violence and racism after centuries in the United States.

Mixed media artist De’Joneiro Jones understands that level of grief as a Black man. He said Black men wake up daily not knowing what experiences they will be faced with.

He releases that stress by collecting antiques and strategically crafting them into works of art. Jones will showcase “Untitled,” a colorful painting that incorporates four large, triangle-shaped panels that will evoke questions about today’s socio-political climate.

Jones recently lost his grandmother, who helped shape his life. He uses art to strengthen him.

Musa believes joy and grief is a combined experience.

"I don't think of joy as just happiness,” Musa said. “I think it actually has many other emotions. And it has anger. It has sadness, so I think joy is the breakthrough emotion.”

Poet Mozella Ward writes and practices yoga as an outlet. They'll recite an original poem, “Ancestor,” and perform vinyasa and meditative yoga poses, which Ward said helps heal and connect with ancestors.

Kai Smith
Poet Mozella Ward is posed on their yoga mat with books and crystals. Ward said yoga helps release the stress of racism and sexism that they experience as a Black person.

“Grieving, rest, sleep, loving is a revolutionary act that was not always granted to us and that we have to take it back — if for no one else — for yourself and for the people before you and the people after you,” Ward said.

Visual artists Lillian Gardner and Shevaré Perry are both grieving the police violence that George Floyd endured and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the Black community. Perry’s work “She is Her and I am She” is a digital media piece with text-based images in the shape of Black women. Gardner’s “Journey: the Element of Reflection and Growth” is a nine-piece self-portrait that showcases her experiences as a Black woman. Writer Maurice Tracy will lay out the trauma of sexual abuse in the visual essay “Pluk, Puw, Tup, Vin” — a play on the sound the Ortolan bird makes.

The artists hope that their exhibits will show that Black people are resilient and that moments of joy are always on the other side of pain.

"Joy is an act of resistance. Everything that a Black person does, particularly when it's related to their happiness or to their self preservation or to their joy becomes or can be read as politicized as an act of resistance,” Ward said. “And while I agree, if Black people feel that way about their joy, but I would love if my joy was just my joy. And it wasn’t always cast against anti-Blackness.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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