Black artists explore the legacy of slavery in 'Past is Present' exhibit at Herron

Posted at 3:52 PM, Oct 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-05 09:28:05-04

INDIANAPOLIS — International, national, and local Black artists have responded to the complicated legacy of slavery and the continued progression toward freedom in a new exhibition at the Herron School of Art + Design.

"Past is Present: Black Artists Respond to the Complicated Histories of Slavery" displays 200 art pieces — including 10 mid-19th and 20th-century historical objects centered on the stories of enslaved people and their descendants— across various mediums in three different rooms inside Herron. The artworks include prints, paintings, ceramics, mixed media installations, sculptures, textiles, and digital projections.

Dr. Jonathan Michael Square, a fashion historian and curator of Afro-diasporic art, curated Past is Present.

In exploring present-day issues surrounding race, power, and inequality, a fundamental underlying principle of Past is Present is to "resist easy narratives about African American history," Dr. Square said.

"Pun intended: Black history, or African American history, is often seen in black and white. There's a sort of easy teleology from enslavement all the way to freedom. And actually, that progression from enslavement to freedom was quite halting. And some people would argue that we're still in the process of achieving freedom," Dr. Square said. "That's what this exhibition explores — how artists sort of respond to the complicated history of uneasy, halting progression towards freedom."


"This exhibition is very personal," Dr. Square, a Louisiana native, told WRTV on the exhibit's first full day of opening. Dr. Square is a New York City resident who is an assistant professor of Black Visual Culture at the Parsons School of Design. "I'm someone who uses fashion and textiles as a lens in which to consider histories and people that are descendants, so many of the works, deal with fashion or textiles [in Past is Present]."

For the last year and a half, Dr. Square has been working on the exhibit, flying back and forth from New York City to Indianapolis and conducting Zoom calls. Every part of the exhibit has not only a point befitting the showcase as a whole, but each has a particular story.

"People take fashion for granted. It's so quotidian. It's like food, art, sports; it's just part of everyday life. And so people sort of don't put it on the same level as say philosophy, or policy, or the law," Dr. Square said. "But there's a lot of important information that's embedded in the clothing we wear."

For instance, the textile negro cloth, Dr. Square said.

"It's a textile that was manufactured specifically for enslaved people. And this is another example of the ways in which fashion and textiles can tell us sort of important stories about the history of slavery in the U.S."

For the last year and a half, Dr. Jonathan Michael Square has been working on the "Past is Present" exhibit, flying back and forth from New York City to Indianapolis and conducting Zoom calls.

To say the Past is Present exhibit is powerful would be an understatement.

It exalting and intriguingly raises complex questions, challenging the status quo of what the general population considers when they think of Black American history, slavery, and freedom.

In order to raise those questions, it was vital to Dr. Square not only to bring new names to the city but to keep the city's artists at the center, making it clear to viewers that Indianapolis and its history are embedded in a larger, global conversation.

"One thing that I hope viewers take away is the relationship between local histories in national and international histories," Dr. Square said. "I thought it was really important to have a number of Indianapolis-based artists that are speaking to, one, their own personal histories and also dynamics within Indianapolis, but also putting those artists in conversation with artists that are based in other places in the U.S. or sometimes internationally."

Featured artists in the exhibition are Mason Archie, Kaila Austin, Torry Brown, Willie Cole, Matthew Cooper, Sonya Clark, Walter Lobyn Hamilton, John Wesley Hardrick, Alicia Henry, Samuel Levi Jones, Roberto Lugo, Marcus Morris, Nell Painter, Rae Parker, Carl Pope, Martin Puryear, Rebecca Robinson, Mary Sibande, Lorna Simpson, LaShawnda Crowe Storm, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, John Wilson, and Shamira Wilson.

Of the artists, Dr. Square writes in a release for the exhibition that they are "deeply engaged in using their creative practices as a tool for liberation, raising important questions about slavery's past and present, and imagining a way forward."


You can learn more about Dr. Square and the book he is writing on negro cloth, titled "Negro Cloth: How Slavery Birthed the American Fashion Industry," at Those interested in viewing "Past is Present" can check it out at Herron, located at 735 W. New York St., through January 14. Gallery hours during the fall semester are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. The exhibit is free.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.