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.
Nestled between a luxury hotel, a Starbucks, and the Social Security Administration building lies another world entirely—one where three-foot-tall African masks slide past floating buildings and the goddess-like silhouettes of black women soar in psychedelic skies . ARTECHOUSE, an immersive, interactive art space near the mall, has opened its doors Ace: Afro frequencies for the public on June 13. The exhibition, which features visuals by London-based Afro-surrealist artist Vince Fraser and audio by poet Ursula Rucker, celebrates black triumph and the experience of the African diaspora.
“Our victory is no mystery!” Rucker told a crowd of more than 75 listeners at an artist panel held in the space, repeating a line from her poetry. “Black people – tell your story!”
The panel discussion took place in the main gallery, where projections move along the walls and the ground often seems to shift underfoot. Rucker shared the floor with Fraser, who wore his signature look of a full face covering and dark sunglasses, and Sheldon Scott, artist and global director of goals at Eaton Workshop. Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, moderated the panel; all proceeds from the evening’s ticket sales went to the museum.
“It’s meaningful to us, it’s powerful to us, and it’s mission-driven,” said ARTECHOUSE Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Sandro Kereselidze. “We’re inspiring, educating and empowering the next generation of artists – hopefully more black artists in the field – who can step up and say ‘hey ARTECHOUSE, I want to create something like this, can you help?'” And we can .”
Fraser started talking to Kereselidze and his collaboration team more than three years ago. to A first debuted last summer at ARTECHOUSE’s Miami location and then spent five months at the Bellagio Fine Arts Gallery in Las Vegas. But the ARTECHOUSE gallery in DC (which was the first location to open—Kereselidze has lived here in Washington since 1994) is significantly larger than the other spaces. All of Fraser’s artwork had to be digitally reconstructed to fill the 15,000-square-foot gallery. “It was absolutely breathtaking,” Fraser said of walking into the DC exhibit for the first time. “[I was] I’m just blown away to see it on such a large scale.
Visitors who had the opportunity to view the exhibit after the panel discussion ended seemed also impressed by the artworks. For more than an hour, people sat on the floor watching the screenings in the main gallery and wandered around the other four, smaller galleries.
“We had very beautiful exhibits, very beautiful exhibits, very interesting or funny exhibits, but not all of our exhibits are art at this level,” said Tiago Link, host of ARTECHOUSE, who has experienced four different ARTECHOUSE projects so far while working there. “You can feel the amount of passion, dedication and energy that goes into every part of it.”
The artwork on display includes interactive and immersive pieces such as a fully mirrored room filled with moving wheels of brightly colored light; motion sensor-controlled maps of Africa projected onto the floor that move and rotate beneath visitors’ feet; and a series of digital, futuristic-looking African masks that visitors can virtually try on.
Fraser focuses on African masks in much of his work. This 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 titles of the works are also from the Yoruba language; to Apronounced ah-shai, is a philosophical belief held by the Yoruba people of West Africa that invokes the power to produce change.)
During the artist panel, Fraser talked about what the masks symbolize in his work, and his remarks resonated with the audience. “The part that impressed me [from Fraser’s commentary] that’s how we found a safe place as black people behind our masks—the masks we have to wear to appear in white capitalist society,” said Nina Brewton, a D.C.-based artist, auctioneer and fundraising consultant. “So it gives new space to the idea of a safe space. Instead of hiding behind the mask, we now step forward and empower each other and ourselves with the masks that were worn by our ancestors and those that will be worn in the future.
Most of the audience at the artist panel was black, and Quentin Williams — a black artist and media company owner from Philadelphia who came to Washington to see the exhibit after being invited by Rucker herself — said he was also excited by the variety present in the previous evenings screenings. “I saw white people, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and black people. And it was really interesting to see everyone engaged in the art,” Williams said. “Everyone seemed to be equally enthusiastic about it. And I really appreciate that, as a black American, that people can appreciate black history and black art and black perspectives—and at the same time enjoy drinks and enjoy their own personal experience in the space, and not feel others, to feel included in it and seen in it. Because it helps integrate our experiences as Americans.
The exhibit touches on contemporary issues of social justice alongside the stories of historical African kings and queens. The words “Black Lives Matter” pierce through a tangle of gold chains in one section of the main gallery’s haunting video, and sign-wielding protesters are shown marching down futuristic streets. Most of all, however, the exhibition does not focus on the persecution, but on the celebration of the global black experience.
“Growing up in the public school system, African-American history is often painted as very negative. And even though that’s part, at least in America, of the experiences of enslaved people, that’s not where we started,” Williams said. “Seeing the joy, seeing the African features in a really positive and beautiful light, seeing black figures dancing and hearing the drums and knowing it’s upbeat makes it more festive.” And really my lived experience as a black person is more joyful. Of course there are ups and downs, but I feel like this is the party I’ve been missing all my life.”
Copyright: Afro Frequencies will continue through Fall 2022. ARTECHOUSE DC is open 10am-10pm daily at 1238 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets are $17-25 with special family pricing Monday through Friday.