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The Word Made Flesh

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 21, 2011 7:00PM

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Alpha Males, Jamel Shabazz, 2010

At first glance the title of a new exhibit at Columbia College, Fear into Fire, for all its alliterative bounce, doesn’t quite seem to mesh with its subtitle: Reclaiming Black Male Identity Through the Art of Tattooing. In fact, it does—especially when you listen to Nicole Harrison, the exhibit’s 25-year-old curator, describe “fear” as representing the challenges black youth face and “fire” representing the strength it takes to overcome those challenges.

The photographs in this collection explore the connection between the black male body and skin art as they work in tandem to shape culture, influence personal identity, and create lasting bonds within the community.

Columbia College alumnus Harrison chatted with Chicagoist about the exhibit and what it was like to curate her first show.

Chicagoist: Tattoos are a kind of personal symbolism, and for many groups (bikers, the gay and lesbian community, etc.) they help bind the community together. Talk about how this binding quality functions for black males.

Nicole Harrison: Tattooing the body as a way to generate communities and establish bonds with others appears in any cultural group because the idea of permanently marking the body with a symbol or phrase to connect with others is something very human. However, I think the types of tattoos we begin to see, and the style of the tattoo may differ, and the emotional connections to those tattoos may be different, as well. This is not to say that other groups do not feel as passionate or emotional to what they mark on their bodies, but I think there’s a way in which black men do this that is different or is not seen in the same way as in other communities.

C: Where did you get the idea for the title of this exhibit? You mentioned it was indirectly inspired by Mike Tyson?

NH: Fear into Fire is also the title of my thesis which I wrote for my masters program at New York University—which inspired this exhibit. The title came after doing research on the topic of the black male body and tattooing culture among men of the Hip Hop generation. In the book The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture by best-selling journalist Bakari Kitwana, the author quotes Mike Tyson describing the secret to his success—“turn the fear into fire.” In a Hip Hop context, fire is a great thing. It’s a powerful thing. And most importantly it’s a dangerous thing. And anyone that possesses that fire is untouchable because they don’t allow others to dictate their success, who they are, and what they value. In this regard, the ability to take control of your body to express yourself and tell stories, while being creative and not caring about other people’s opinions is turning the fear into fire.

C: Fear into Fire is the first exhibit you've curated. What kind of "mark" did this experience leave on you, Nicole?

Storyboard, Shasta Bady

NH: What I find most exciting about putting together a show such as this one is the opportunity to visually highlight what I find to be the beauty, power, and complexities of black culture and identity— which is what much of my work tends to focus on. I often take an academic approach in many of the projects and I find that it often isolates communities that do not prefer to engage in very academic or scholarly conversation; being able to curate, allows me the opportunity to tap into the visual aspects of what my work is about. Also, the power to control what I want the viewer to see, and how it is shown, is always exciting because I have the control to take my thoughts and ideas into whatever direction I find to be necessary.

However, the amount of control I have as the curator has brought a few challenges that took some getting use to. Considering that this was my first time curating an exhibition, the main challenge was learning about the curatorial process, and what it entails, while putting together this show. I began doing my own research on the process just so I could get a grasp of what is possible. I read books and attended as many exhibitions as I could to get ideas for the show.

C: There are four artists featured in this exhibit. Describe each artist’s approach to reclaiming black male identity though the art of tattooing. What words come to mind when you think of these four photographers?

NH: Akintola Hanif is raw and literal. His work focuses on the literal messages of the tattoo. He allows the men he photographs to use their bodies as a space to tell their stories.

Jamel Shabazz is organic and masculine. His images focus on the body and masculinity of the black male as he highlights the power and confidence of the men he captures on film.

Shasta Bady is intimate and beauty. Her photographs are all about the beauty and intimacy of using the body to show other ways black men can be viewed.

Jabari Zuberi is sacred and religious. His images explore the body as a sacred space where each individual has bonds to others and/or to their communities.

C: Tattoos are considered fine art at this point, rather than symbols of rebellion or anti-social statements. Is this true with Fear into Fire?

NH: Yes. This is one of the goals behind Fear into Fire. The images that you will see in this exhibition show that there are stories and artistic expressions happening when we allow ourselves to view this culture in more positive ways. It is no longer about just doing something to look tough or deviant but it is about the aesthetic pleasure of being tattooed, along with its meaning and power.

Fear into Fire: Reclaiming Black Male Identity Through the Art of Tattooing runs Jan 24—March 2 at Columbia College Chicago’s Arcade Gallery, 618 S. Michigan Ave., Second Floor.