An interactive art exhibit celebrates the global Black experience, telling the stories of African kings and queens with visuals by Vince Fraser and spoken word poetry by Ursula Rucker.
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Nestled between a fancy hotel, a Starbucks and the Social Security Administration building sits an entirely different world where towering African masks glide past floating buildings and silhouettes of Black goddesses drift on a psychedelic sky.
ARTECHOUSE, an immersive, interactive art space near the Mall, opened “Asë: Afro Frequencies” to the public on June 13. The exhibit features visuals by London-based Afrosurrealist artist Vince Fraser and audio by poet Ursula Rucker, celebrating Black triumph and the experience of the African diaspora.
“Our victory is not a mystery,” Rucker told a crowd of more than 75 listeners at an artists’ panel held in the space on Monday, June 13, echoing a line from her poetry. “Black people – tell your story!”
The panel discussion took place inside the main gallery, where projections move across the walls and the ground often appeared to shift beneath one’s feet. Rucker shared the floor with Fraser, who sported his signature look with a full face covering and dark sunglasses and Sheldon Scott, an artist and Global Head of Purpose at Eaton Workshop. Ngaire Blankenberg, director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, served as the moderator.
“It’s meaningful for us, it’s powerful for us and it’s mission-driven,” ARTECHOUSE’s founder and Chief Creative Officer Sandro Kereselidze said. “We inspire, educate and empower the next generation of artists – hopefully, more Black artists in this field – who can step up and be like, ‘hey, ARTECHOUSE, I want to create something like this, can you help?’ And we can.”
“Asë” debuted last summer at ARTECHOUSE’s Miami location and then spent five months on display at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas. But the ARTECHOUSE gallery in D.C., the first location to open in 1994, is significantly larger than the other spaces.
Fraser’s artwork had to be digitally reconstructed to fill the 15,000-square-foot gallery.
“It was absolutely breath-taking,” Fraser said while viewing the DC exhibit for the first time.
“We’ve had a lot of beautiful exhibits, a lot of pretty exhibits, a lot of interesting or fun exhibits but not all of our exhibits are art on this level,” said Thiago Linck, an ARTECHOUSE host who has experienced four different ARTECHOUSE projects during his tenure. “You can feel the amount of passion and dedication and energy that goes into each and every part of this.”
The artwork on display includes interactive and immersive pieces, motion-sensor-operated maps of Africa projected onto the floor and a series of digital, futuristic-looking African masks that visitors can try on virtually.
Fraser focused on African masks in much of his work. The gallery features designs inspired by rulers from the Ethiopian and Mali empires, traditional voodoo guardian symbols of the Ogu people and helmet-shaped masks from the Yoruba people, among others. (Many of the artworks’ titles draw upon the Yoruba language, too; Asë, pronounced ah-shay, is a philosophical belief held by the Yoruba people of West Africa, that invokes power to produce change.)
“The part that stood out to me [from Fraser’s commentary] is how we have found a safe space as Black people behind our masks – the masks that we have to wear to show up in white capitalist society,” said Nina Brewton, a D.C.-based artist, benefit auctioneer and fundraising consultant.
“So it’s giving new space to the idea of having a safe space,” she said. “Instead of hiding behind the mask, now we are stepping forth and empowering each other and ourselves with the masks that are worn from our ancestors and the ones that will be worn in the future.”
Quentin Williams, a Black spoken word artist and media company owner from Philadelphia who came to see the exhibit after being invited by Rucker, expressed excitement about the diversity of attendees.
“I saw white people, Indian people, Latinx, Asian American people and Black people – and it was really interesting to see everyone engaged with the art,” Williams said. “It seemed like everyone was just as enthusiastic about it. And I really appreciate that as a Black American, people can appreciate Black history and Black art and Black perspectives and enjoy their own personal experience in the space and not feel othered. It helps integrate our experience as Americans.”
The exhibit touches on modern-day social justice issues alongside the stories of historic African kings and queens. The words “Black Lives Matter” break through a tangle of gold chains in one part of the main gallery’s immersive video and protesters holding signs are shown marching down futuristic streets. However, the exhibit focuses not on persecution but on celebration of the global Black experience.
“Growing up in the public school system, African-American history was often painted to be very negative,” Williams said. “And while that is part, at least in America, of the lived experiences of enslaved people, we didn’t start there.”
“To see the joy, to see African features, in a really positive and beautiful light, and to see black figures dancing, and to hear the drums and know that it’s upbeat, makes it more festive. Of course there are ups and downs but I feel like this is the party that I’ve been missing all my life.”
“Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies” runs through Fall 2022. ARTECHOUSE DC is open 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily at 1238 Maryland Ave. SW. Tickets can be purchased at a discounted rate for families Monday – Friday.