The Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha, NE
January 14–March 25, 2017
Alexandria Smith explores the transformative girlhood experiences that shape the women we become as she illuminates the complexities of Black identity. Try a Little Tenderness presents Smith’s paintings and collages in which she obsessively deconstructs images of the female body. Legs, hands, and pigtails, for instance, become characters and landscapes—a topography of the artist’s psyche. Although her abstract tableaux have been interpreted as performances or aftermaths of violence, they actually represent bodies in flux: not-quite-adolescent girls beginning to develop senses of themselves as independent from the environments they inhabit. Collectively, they tell a mythical coming-of-age story that centers on the mental and emotional processes of self-discovery.
With the title of this exhibition, Smith refers to Otis Redding’s best-selling track that implores men to show caring toward women. Many have found deeper meaning in Redding’s lyrics, believing that he was also singing about women’s class struggles and heteronormative values that equate womanhood to ideals of beauty and male companionship. Smith’s art conjures up these different interpretations while tethering Redding’s song to the present: the phrase “try a little tenderness” is Smith’s call for greater human compassion in response to violent acts on Black bodies. Her exhibition creates a space for remembering, in her words, “the humanity of Black women and girls” and “every woman’s capacity to give and receive intimacy."
Smith is recipient of the first annual Wanda D. Ewing Commission, which supports the production and presentation of new work by a woman artist of the African diaspora.* Wanda Denise Ewing (1970–2013), the Omahan artist for whom The Union's gallery is named, was influenced by folk-art aesthetics, craft traditions, and the limited depictions of Black women in Western art history and popular culture. Through her art, she celebrated Black bodies and explored the complex interplay of race, gender, and sexuality. The commission was established to carry forth Ewing’s legacy and to create a vital cultural opportunity for Greater Omaha, where narratives of Black female experience are too often absent from the arts discourse. —Nicole J. Caruth
Photos: Dana Damewood