Artist Nathaniel Donnett creates a public installation that bridges communities

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Artist Nathaniel Donnett creates a public installation that bridges communities
Artist Nathaniel Donnett and Kenya Evans conduct a community backpack exchange at CAMH with children from Houston’s S.H.A.P.E. Community Center. The used backpacks collected become part of the artist’s installation Acknowledgement: The Historic Polyrhythm of Being(s). Photo by Kristin Massa.



HOUSTON, TX.- Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is presenting Acknowledgement: The Historic Polyrhythm of Being(s), a newly commissioned public art installation by Houston-based artist Nathaniel Donnett, as part of the Museum’s new Beyond CAMH initiative series. The community-engaging work is located upon more than 120 feet of construction fencing surrounding the Museum’s front lawn during its ongoing capital campaign renovations. Initiated through a backpack exchange with the youth of Houston’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards, the text- and object-based artwork acknowledges and reflects the importance of history, education, family, and visibility in these communities and Black American social life. The work will remain on view—day and night—through August 31, 2020.

Acknowledgement: The Historic Polyrhythm of Being(s) sets an important precedent by including youth as an integral part of the public art process through direct collaboration with community organizations, including S.H.A.P.E. Community Center, Change Happens!, Lindsay Gary, Jack Yates High School, and Kashmere Gardens Elementary. For Donnett, this project engages the youth’s social imagination by uplifting everyday objects as material for the artwork, and the exchange as a gesture of human kindness. The exchange seeks to inspire youth around the value of education, through the gift of a new backpack and by highlighting the inner resources and strength of Houston’s Black community. The multi-faceted nature of this artwork emphasizes the power of direct action and social exchange.




The artwork comprises a 120-foot pre-existing fence, upon which is printed imagined words and phrases common to the aforementioned neighborhoods, and a series of backpacks mounted on the fence. Some of the backpacks contain photographs taken by the artist and objects collected from these three neighborhoods, which reference Nkisi power figures of the Congo and the notion of being both present and not present at the same time. At night, the backpacks are illuminated with lights that continuously pulse in Morse code, the phrase “A Love Supreme” from the John Coltrane song “Acknowledgement,” an excerpt from a James Baldwin’s essay “The Uses of the Blues,” and a verse from the song “Mad” by singer-songwriter Solange.

“After Emancipation, newly-freed Black Americans in Houston, Texas established three neighborhoods—3rd, 4th, and 5th Wards,” said Donnett. “Gentrification, cultural erasure, income disparities, and unjust state and municipal policies are among the myriad events that have thrust the primarily Black residents of Houston, Texas's historical Black neighborhoods into a state of precarity and invisibility. Yet, Black expressive use of language is both a form of imagination and resistance, social aesthetics are indicators of history that remain forever present, and acts of exchange demonstrate the importance of societal interconnectivity.”

Acknowledgement examines the formal and conceptual vernacular of these communities, including architecture, iconography, and language practices, to explore the parallels between an evolving artistic process and social transformations. Informed by Fred Moten’s notion of “Black fugitivity,” Antonio Gramsci’s essay “Language, Linguistics, and Folklore”, and John Coltrane’s song “Acknowledgement”, Donnet’s overall project serializes the process of navigating structural systems of race and class.

While CAMH remains closed for construction and COVID-19 precautions, Donnett’s work provides a source of community-based art in keeping with the Museum’s mission to present extraordinary, thought-provoking arts programming and exhibitions to educate and inspire audiences nationally and internationally.










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