Artist-in-Residence Exhibit Remixes ‘Problematic’ Wallpaper on Campus

Fitt Artist-in-Residence Jazzmen Lee-Johnson MA ’15 spoke Thursday night about his recent exhibit, “Not Ever More,” at a talk hosted by the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. Lee-Johnson’s work is “informed by a desire to understand how our current situation relates to the trauma of the past,” according to her website.

“Not Ever More”, presented at the Nightingale-Brown House, was created to cover a wallpaper featured in the building, Lee-Johnson said. The wallpaper was created in the 19th century by a French artist and is problematic in its depiction of black and indigenous people, she explained.

JNBC director Dietrich Neumann said in an interview with The Herald that former JNBC deputy director Marisa Angell Brown invited Lee-Johnson to create a response to the wallpaper after students raised concerns about her contents.

Lee-Johnson said she was inspired to use silk prints because it would allow viewers to see her piece while making the wallpaper itself visible.

Lee-Johnson said she wanted the prints to have the quilting aesthetic to highlight the importance of the art form to many communities. Lee-Johnson also invited viewers to touch both the wallpaper and the prints to interact with the exhibit and the history of the wallpaper.

“It’s an echo of history and, even though it happened in the past, our perception of it is (either) cloudy or clear,” she said.

Lee-Johnson then gave a presentation on the exhibition. Neumann introduced Lee-Johnson and said the exhibit was “a celebration of (his) work” that invites viewers to “dig and dig deep.”

Lee-Johnson took to the catwalk to discuss her inspiration for the prints. She said the wallpaper depicts five designs, all fictionalized versions of the United States.

One design she discussed showed a view of New York from New Jersey and featured an image from Edward William Clay’s “Life in Philadelphia,” which depicts African Americans “trying to assimilate…(and ) trying to be fanciful in a derogatory way,” Lee-Johnson said.

Lee-Johnson said his methodology for creating art is rooted in music, rhythm, dance, and hip hop. She invited the audience to applaud with her hip hop performance. After the performance, she gestured to the white subject portraits on the walls of the venue and began to talk about her time as a student at JNBC.

“I walk into this space and I don’t see anyone who looks like me and I see this wallpaper that features indigenous people and black people…in this distorted way,” she said.

Lluvia Richmond ’22 said they came to see the exhibit after taking a class where Lee-Johnson was a guest speaker.

Autumn Tilley ’26 said she came to the exhibit because it was needed for a class she’s taking. She noted that she appreciated the opportunity to see a process of art installation and to explore the exhibition as a recycling of history and art.

The next Conversations at the JNBC event will take place next Thursday and will feature Rhode Island arts patron Joseph Chazan, illustrator Erminio Pinque, and writer and playwright Lenny Schwartz.

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