On March 26, an exhibition inspired by civil rights activist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois called “W.E.B. Du Bois, Georgia, and his Data Portraits” went on view at Artspace New Haven. It is accompanied by two exhibitions featuring Du Bois-inspired works — “Light of Progress” by Theaster Gates and “In a Heartbeat” by Dana Karwas, who is also the director of Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. All exhibitions will remain on view until June 26.
The exhibition about Du Bois includes a series of data visualization works created by the activist about socioeconomic conditions facing Black Americans in Georgia. Gates’ exhibition — composed of two works in neon lights — is displayed along with these 30 data pieces in the gallery’s main space, while Karwas’ exhibition features three sculptural works. Karwas’ pieces are inspired by “The Princess Steel,” a piece of speculative fiction written by Du Bois.
“[Du Bois’] data visualizations dealt with information from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but the histories explored within are ongoing to say the least,” said Simon Ghebreyesus ’22, gallery operations assistant at Artspace. “The systems and institutions he centered on continue to serve as sites of oppression today, and the four categories we divided the works into — migration, family, work and property — still occupy contemporary consciousness.”
Ghebreyesus said that Lisa Dent, executive director of Artspace, approached him last semester with a book featuring a collection of 60 visualizations created by Du Bois in 1900. Dent proposed displaying some of these pieces alongside Gates’ neons. Ghebreyesus and Dent then together selected pieces by Du Bois and Gates.
These portraits trace socioeconomic conditions such as income, marital status and property ownership among African-Americans in the 20th century. They represent a simplified, stylized and modernist approach to data representation with numbers represented though colors and bar graphs of different shapes.
“They’re really, really cool,” said Tina Oyanguren ’23, an intern at Artspace. “[Du Bois] was one of the first to do these stylized data visualizations, and just the information you learn from looking at them is kind of mind-blowing.”
While Du Bois’ data works include text and numbers, Gates’ neons instead rely entirely on shape and color as a pared-down, contemporary reimagining of Du Bois’ work.
Ghebreyesus said his favorite work on view by Du Bois is a graph depicting the income and expenditure of 150 Black families in Atlanta. He said the piece uses an “inviting color palette” that differs from other works in the series.
“It features black-and-white photographs of two people and some houses,” Ghebreyesus said. “It’s a small detail, but it really embodies the phrase ‘data portrait’ as a descriptor of the work. It offers an intimate and revealing glimpse of these families and their everyday concerns.”
Karwas’ three sculptures are titled “Counter-Curve,” “Orbital Axis” and “Arc of Near.” These pieces are a product of Karwas’ pedagogy and personal research inspired by themes explored in Du Bois’ “The Princess Steel.” In the story, the protagonist, Hannibal Johnson, creates an invention that allows small moments to be integrated into “the Great Near,” or the sum of all the usually unnoticed moments in a person’s life that might nevertheless add up to something deeply significant.
Karwas’ sculptural works are forms of visualizing these compiled events. Karwas mapped her own heartbeat for two of her works and modeled a hand gesture for the third.
“What the past year has painfully reminded us all is that any or all moments can be consequential, and the aggregate of them has its own distinct significance,” Karwas said. “I would hope the all three parts of the exhibition gives people the space to consider their own small moments, deliberately and carefully.”
Visitors can visit Artspace from Wednesday to Saturday between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. and are not required to make prior appointments.
Annie Radillo | firstname.lastname@example.org