By Published: Feb. 6, 2024

New exhibition opening Friday at CU Art Museum created by socially engaged artists-in-residence to honor Black girls and women

Like the “Mona Lisa” whom she mirrors, “Lona Misa” is keeping her secrets. Her expression is unknowable, and a million thoughts could be swirling behind her calm eyes.

She is a testament to the growth and evolution of her young artist, Kiana Gatling of Denver—a recognition of talent and value, of being an artist whose work is deserving of gallery walls.

Von Ross and Charlie Billingsley

Von Ross (left) and Charlie Billingsley consider how best to display "Lona Misa" by Kiana Gatling.

That’s not always an easy evolution for women, and especially for Black women, says Charlie Billingsley, who recognizes the profound power in a woman declaring “I am worthy.”

“That’s one of our goals here,” Billingsley explains, “to tell Black women, ‘What you create is good enough. What you create is amazing. You are amazing.’”

The “here” is "We CU: A Visual Celebration of Black Womanhood, Presence, and Connectedness," a new exhibition opening with a celebration from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Colorado Art Museum; it will be on view through July 13. “We CU” is created, curated and presented by Billingsley and Von Ross, founders of the Museum for Black Girls in Denver and inaugural artists in the Socially Engaged Artists-In-Residence program created by the CU Art Museum and University Libraries.

“When we say, ‘We see you,’ what we’re saying to Black women is ‘we see you beautiful,’” Billingsley explains. “We see you amazing. We see you talented. We see you courageous. We’re saying to Black girls and Black women, ‘We want you to see yourselves as we see you.’”

‘You don’t have to be what you see’

One afternoon last week, with the ingredients of the exhibit fully formed in their minds and on paper, but in progress throughout the exhibition space, Billingsley and Ross consider the “Lona Misa.” Her 4-foot by 5-foot canvas is propped against a far wall and the two women stand chins on fists contemplating her.

If you go
 What: Opening celebration for "We CU: A Visual Celebration of Black Womanhood, Presence, and Connectedness"

When: 4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9

Where: CU Art Museum

Learn more

“She needs her own space,” Ross observes, and Billingsley nods.

“But is that wall too big?” Billingsley asks, pointing to an expanse of blank-for-now wall, against which an assortment of empty frames lean. Some of the frames are very old and reminiscent of ones they came across in the University Libraries archives—one of the many benefits of being artists in residence, Ross says.

“We get to see all these amazing art works, go through the archives and have access to these collections,” Billingsley says. “And that’s another thing we want to accomplish with ‘We CU,’ because a lot of times Black people don’t have this kind of access, so we want to show people that they belong in these spaces.”

Billingsley and Ross are considering whether to hang “Lona Misa” by herself or to surround her with empty frames—the frames being a motif that extends from the Museum for Black Girls.

“The frames are empty because you don’t have to conform to what society tells you (that) you should be,” Ross explains. “Oftentimes, Black girls don’t feel that the way they are is OK. They feel like they have to change, like they have to be different, so we’re saying that you don’t have to be what you see.”

Charlie Billingsley and Von Ross hanging "Lona Misa"

Charlie Billingsley (left) and Von Ross partner on creating the exhibit "We CU: A Visual Celebration of Black Womanhood, Presence, and Connectedness."

‘We honor you’

The theme of authenticity runs through the exhibit, which Billingsley and Ross envision as a home. The various rooms and artifacts of home are represented “because home is where you’re your most authentic self,” Billingsley says. “You don’t have to talk a certain way or dress a certain way. With this exhibit, we’re inviting you into our homes.”

Against one wall, there’s a low green couch encased in plastic, because it’s the good couch and the plastic is how you keep it from getting dirty, Ross says. Against another wall is a salon chair with a clear plastic dryer hood, the kind under which many women have spent many hours.

“As Black women, these are the artifacts of our lives,” Ross says. “We want there to be that recognition and we want to say that these things have value. They matter.”

The exhibition highlights words and quotations that contextualize and exemplify the countless ways to be a Black woman in the world “and to show that words matter,” Billingsley says. “We want to show how impactful words are on Black women.”

The flow of the exhibition will take visitors to a dining room, on which places are set for some of the many, many roles Black women fulfill, and then to a room filled with flowers.

“That’s our ‘thank you’ to Black girls and women,” Billingsley says. “This is our garden, and as they come through this is how we say, ‘We honor you.’”

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