Living, Working, Listening: Black Artist Research Space

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Music has the ability to stir similar emotions in people from different backgrounds or in different locations. Two individuals who have never met can listen to the same song and generate the same sentiment. Black music has historically been a unifier: from church songs to soul, to jazz, funk, and trap, the music that raises us provides a soundtrack to our lives. It empowers us, colors our worlds, and is the driving force for the creation of artwork that will outlive us.

Music That Raised Us was an exhibition about Black music and its indelible impact on the featured artists who created new artworks for the show. For three months, Aliana Grace Bailey and Christopher “kolpeace” Johnson were artists in residence at Black Artist Research Space, or BARS, activating the downtown gallery with their conversations and creations. Music That Raised Us, which ran from March 19 through April 16 at 426 W. Franklin Street, was an amalgamation of the lived experiences of Bailey, kolpeace, and curator Rhea Beckett, but also of any artist who has been touched by the melody of a Stevie Wonder song or moved to move by the rhythm of a funk tune. 

I first learned about the exhibition the same way that I learned about countless others: scrolling through my Instagram feed. I was stopped by a striking pairing in an installation by Aliana Grace Bailey: a Stevie Wonder record cover Music Of My Mind was affixed to a wall, next to a mass of vibrant, woven fabric cascading down next to it. Fringed in black, a wave of purple, orange, yellow, and pink from Bailey’s weaving reverberated the tones and timing of Wonder’s recorded audio. Looking at this, I heard the chorus of Stevie Wonder’s “Keep on Running” coming out of my iPhone, and it compelled me to make the journey to see the work. I felt that same stirring in the gallery. 


Music That Raised Us at BARS

One corner of the gallery, full of records, CDs, and books about Black music, resembled a basement or living room studio, as if it had been transplanted from someone’s home. The interactive space beckoned visitors to sit and thumb through records, read the books, and maybe even play something. I was thrilled to see a Phyllis Hyman poster—it reminded me of my childhood when the record played in my house. I remembered holiday celebrations, when my mom let me open the glass barricade that protected the black CD player and play a CD. Beckett intended this to “be a space that was recognizable, and literally a place you could interact with and engage with on your own to draw more connections to what the two artists are thinking about.” 

Along with new artworks by Bailey and kolpeace, Music That Raised Us was infused with history through photographs from the I. Henry Photo Project and antique show posters from the Globe Print Studio at MICA. There was also a video collaboration between media artist J’von Keller and BARS. These additional elements tied together the contemporary exhibition with Black Baltimore of the past, and united artists who are living, working, and listening in this city. 


Aliana Grace Bailey in Music That Raised Us at BARS

In the exhibition, Bailey’s artwork was displayed across the gallery from a series of large square portrait paintings by kolpeace, setting up a conversation between the two artists’ work. The paintings depicted four Black women, each marked by a different monochromatic palette. What was so moving to me was that the colors in both kolpeace and Bailey’s works seemed to contain traces of the same shades, as if the works had been made in concert. I later learned that Bailey and kolpeace spent time in the gallery talking about and listening to music and making art which resulted in this series of works and the exhibition. “A lot of it came from me being there late at night, working on the exhibition with Chris, we’d listen to music together,” Bailey says. “Or I would randomly start singing songs while I was on my loom weaving. It came from a very genuine and organic place.”

Chris Johnson, aka kolpeace, is a performance artist and painter from the deep south and those southern roots are threaded throughout his paintings in Music That Raised Us. His accent is thick like molasses; he grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, raised by women. 

Johnson, currently based in Baltimore, often paints in live venues, his movements full of fervor and vigor as he spray paints and infuses fire and passion into the artworks. The women he chose to elevate and put on display in the gallery are four of the women who raised him. “I didn’t have a Black male figure in my life until the middle part of my life,” he says. Inspired by these southern women and their strength, Johnson based each of the paintings on a corresponding color that matched their personalities. Mama’s Smile Yellow is an homage to his mother. “She is a Cancer and she’s always taking selfies,” Johnson says. “My mom used to listen to trap music when she drove me to school, she was a boss. She’s an OG. Her personality is very bright and very outgoing, she invites everyone in.”


kolpeace in Music That Raised Us at BARS
Aliana Grace Bailey in Music That Raised Us at BARS
kolpeace in Music That Raised Us at BARS

Bailey’s work in Music That Raised Us is heavily influenced by her father. “Growing up [with my two other siblings], a big part of our household was my dad, who liked blasting music from the basement. That was his thing every single day,” Bailey says. She wanted to make sure that the love her dad had for music that informed her art practice was put on display in the gallery. 

“I’ve always had conversations with him about music. But specifically for this exhibition, I decided to do that again, in a more intentional way. So I went back home and I was like, ‘Dad, I need you to show me around your basement,’” Bailey says. “I recorded him doing some drumming, and I created that intimacy for us to bond before the exhibition, before even making the work.”

Some of the records on display came directly from Bailey’s home and her dad’s basement. “[Displaying the records] wasn’t the plan initially,” Bailey says. “Because in my mind they are very sacred. But it kind of just happened that way. I’m very grateful that he let me put them on display. He took the records out. It’s just the covers.” Some were sourced by Beckett as well. 

Based in Baltimore and DC and currently at a MASS MoCA residency, Bailey is a multidisciplinary artist and designer who also calls herself a “socially engaged art practitioner.” After getting her undergrad degree as a double major in social work and visual arts at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Bailey came to Baltimore in 2018 for an MFA in community art at MICA.

Bailey describes her hybrid practice beautifully. “My work is really about intimacy. It’s about love. It’s about self-love and process and healing,” she says. Bailey is also a painter and collage artist, but got into weaving around 2019 when she took a class. “I fell in love with how meditative it was. It’s just an amazing feeling. It’s the medium I feel the most spiritually connected to.”


Aliana Grace Bailey in Music That Raised Us at BARS

Bailey and kolpeace spent a lot of time in BARS completing the work for Music That Raised Us, and the collaborative and communal nature of the residency resulted in a warmth and familiarity that translated easily into the physical space. The show felt like a homecoming. 

For Beckett, Music That Raised Us and BARS are both extensions of her curatorial practice thesis. Born in Silver Spring, Beckett grew up in Dayton, Ohio, “the land of funk music,” and she incorporates references to Dayton and to her family in the show. After earning an undergraduate degree at Fisk University in 2013, Beckett came to Baltimore to pursue an MFA in MICA’s Curatorial Practice program, graduating in 2016. Beckett is the gallery manager for C. Grimaldis Gallery and the founding director of Black Artist Research Space. 

BARS originally lived on the internet and Music That Raised IUs played out in the physical extension of her research that she started at MICA. “My curatorial practice concentrates on artists,” Beckett says. “I enjoy working with artists and finding ways to collaborate [with] creative people. Black folks.”

Bailey and kolpeace were resident artists at BARS from December to March, and part of the residency was an opportunity to engage with each other’s work and the work of their peers. The artists got to see the Globe collection at MICA, and set up sessions with Webster Phillips to look through the I. Henry Phillips photo collection. “There were opportunities for all of us to think about the exhibition collectively,” Beckett says. “With their work, they had the opportunity to think about the way they experienced the work that they were creating and ways we could activate the work differently.” 

The primary goal for the residency was for the artists to make art for other spaces in addition to putting on an exhibition at BARS. “In just thinking about opening the space, the way the show came about was just from their conversations, and they kind of jumped at the opportunity to think a little bit differently about what an exhibition could be,” Beckett says. 

According to Beckett, “Collectively the exhibition starts in a very familiar place, and then [it] thinks about how music is this archive that has uplifted a group of people, a race of people, a community, and brought people together and brought communities together. We can make it very personal, but also some of this is universal. I think music is one of those things that’s universal.”


I. Henry Phillips photo collection and Globe at Music That Raised Us at BARS
I. Henry Phillips photo collection and Globe at Music That Raised Us at BARS

Images courtesy of Black Artist Research Space

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