As you walk down the hall on the second floor of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the vibrant, 30- by 42-in. photographic portraits in the large, light-filled Hollinshead gallery straight ahead beckon to you. There is a community here waiting to welcome everyone into the space.
“The Bureau: Grow, As We Are” is a thought-provoking exhibition curated by Bobby Rogers and the rest of the creative people in The Bureau. It is the result of the Inkwell Haven Foundation’s multidisciplinary artist residency program founded by Kahina Van Dyke, which fosters collaboration and supports projects that are rooted in the Island’s Black experience, past and present.
The initial seeds for the exhibition began in 2019 when during his residency, Rogers learned that of the over 2,000-plus images officially documenting Martha’s Vineyard, only a small handful contained a Black presence.
“The [resulting] project centers around archiving, which includes both historic and new images of the African American community, particularly in Oak Bluffs,” Rogers explains. “We are focusing on a community that might have faced a lot of erasure at different points in history. We thought the best approach to a topic like this is to ‘put it in your face,’ and photography and film are both mediums that speak to our emotional core really quickly.”
You want to make sure to start your experience in the small room just to the right as you enter the gallery, where you’ll be surrounded by reprints of some of the few archival photographs of the Black community in Oak Bluffs from the late 19th century. These fascinating portraits of known individuals like the Rev. William Jackson and Minister Amanda Barry Smith, and groups of Island visitors and employees of Island businesses, depict porch gatherings and, as the wall label says, “the transformational, multiracial pulpits of Oak Bluffs’ faith community.”
Rogers and other artists in the residency’s first year interpreted the archive of these historic photographs through their own lenses, coming together to share expertise, techniques, and perspectives. In 2021, Rogers returned with others in The Bureau to start the photographing process, putting out an informal call to Oak Bluffs residents of color who have either recent or generational ties to the Vineyard. This summer, through Van Dyke’s efforts, the team was able to return to work with the museum to share their vision with a wider audience.
The enormous contemporary portraits that fill the main gallery reflect the vibrancy of the community. Each piece is staged either in front of a painted, rural backdrop reminiscent of Renaissance portrait paintings of royalty and aristocrats, or captures the subjects on the front porches of their brightly colored, gingerbread-style Oak Bluffs cottages. In all cases, the subjects are vibrantly alive, with an alluring energy.
Accompanying wall text let us get to know the sitters, making them accessible, as opposed to the remote subjects of court and aristocratic paintings of old. The stunning, luminescent photographs capture a range of people, including multigenerational families, elders, women in their prime, and the youth of the next generation. While they are all staged, everyone glories in their setting, and reflects authenticity in their open countenances.
The show is a visual reflection of The Bureau’s process. In addition to Rogers, this year’s group includes Fadumo Ali, Desaré Cox, Nolan Mao, Autumn Breon, Ian Babineau, Brian Huddleston, and Brian Hart. Rogers says that The Bureau sees itself as a multidisciplinary art design studio incorporating photography, film, design, and fashion. They approach each project by thinking about which artistic medium best tells the story they are trying to convey.
Rogers shared that the show’s title is their interpretation of a Maya Angelou quote: “a safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” He says, “We chose it to talk about the Vineyard from a nostalgic way that grows on us, as well as the physical foliage and greenery that amplifies everything that we feel here.” In this light, the team has included personal, behind-the-scenes film stills of their own experience of Oak Bluffs and the Vineyard as a whole. “There isn’t often an image of the emotional place you find yourself in when you’re here,” Rogers says.
The artist statement for “Grow, As We Are” captures the show’s impact: “This exhibition serves not only as an enrichment of the Black body that is deeply woven throughout the history of the Island, but also as a beaming lighthouse for our future to connect and live out, even if briefly, the freedom dreams of our ancestors.”
The museum’s curator of exhibitions, Anna Barber, explained how the show came to the museum: “Kahina reached out to the museum about the possibility of exhibiting the work because it was rooted in and inspired by this long, continuous history of the Black presence on the Island. Part of our mission is to explore this history. We are always interested in seeing how people tell this Island’s story in new ways. So we were excited to partner with Kahina and The Bureau on this exhibition.”
Van Dyke, who is eager for other artists to apply for her residencies, says, “For me, the exhibit is an opportunity to tell these stories of Oak Bluffs of today and connecting it to 150 years ago. There’s an authenticity to who we are … barefoot on the porch, but everyone is welcome on our porch, and in our hearts and in our community.”
“The Bureau: Grow, As We Are” runs through Jan. 8, 2023, at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
For more information about applying to Inkwell Haven Foundation’s multidisciplinary artist residency program, see inkwellbeach.com.