Liberty or Death: We Went to the Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize Finalists Exhibition

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BmoreArt’s Picks: August 8-14

In the 18th annual Janet & Walter Sondheim Award Finalists Exhibition, on view at the Walters Museum through September 3rd, artists Abigail Lucien, Nekisha Durrett, and Kyrae Dawaun offer a multifaceted and interdisciplinary discussion.

Upon entering the gallery, just off the museum’s main lobby, we’re transported into a space full of flourishing conversations, with multimedia works posing questions about micro and macro histories, social forces, and systems of harm.


Installation view featuring work by Abigail Lucien (foreground), Nekisha Durrett (center), and Kyrae Dawaun (background). Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

From wall-hanging sculptures forged in steel, ceramic vessels, and hand-cut magnolia leaves, to traditional oil paintings, the artworks traverse mediums and genres. The three finalists consider the problems that stem from colonialism, capitalism, and racialization—systems designed to be inhospitable—and seek forward-looking, inviting solutions where solace is found in community and shared experiences.

While each artist creates unique work within their chosen media, lived experiences and historical research are common, crucial parts of their respective practices. Viewed all together, but also as three distinct exhibitions, Lucien, Durrett, and Dawaun elevate voices of liberation as a larger social force within the backdrop of an America propped up by exploitation.


Abigail Lucien

Abigail Lucien, installation view.

Adriana Vélez: Abigail Lucien’s enameled steel artwork is a layered narrative about belonging, both to our loved ones and our homeland. Its distinct visual language is instantly recognizable in the exhibition, consisting of bright and pastel hues, nature themes, and patterned geometry. Lucien’s work tells a story full of Wonderland-esque symbolism starring animal subjects, checkerboard patterns, fences, and croquet arches. 

Fanni Somogyi: As a metalworker I’m magnetically attracted to Lucien’s work, which utilizes a variety of industrial materials contrasted with a whimsical color palette. I was most drawn to the wall-hanging sculpture, “petite apocalypse,” which also uses a gridded partition, dividing natural symbols of lakeside animals, insects, and flora. These motifs painted in soothing sage green contrast with grave themes of doom. All of their works seem to contain this element of eeriness wherein the colors are soothing and beautiful, but deeper and serious narratives play out within them.


Abigail Lucien, "petite apocalypse," 2022 enamel, vinyl, and flock on steel. Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum
Abigail Lucien, “star crossed”. Photo by Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum
A small apocalypse, a revolution, or a coup could be seen as a beginning rather than an end.
Fanni Somogyi

AV: Their storyboard begins with “star crossed,” a wall-mounted sculpture made of acrylic, enamel, and flock on steel. The sculpture is composed of layered imagery, of which the main focus is a large fence structure separating a dog and fawn. The fence’s pointed, arrow-like edges make it impossible for the animals to unite, forcing them apart indefinitely. Butterflies, lovebirds, and twirling ribbon adorn the scene, further emphasizing the whimsical and romantic nature of the piece. The deer has star cutouts throughout its body that form constellations, not unlike gunshot wounds fired by a hunter. 

As a companion piece to “petite apocalypse,” “star crossed” serves as the introduction to the story of doomed lovers, separated by circumstance and their innate differences that seemingly run deeper than simply one being a domestic animal while the other is a forest creature. Lucien’s work echoes loss and hope, childhood dreams and the comfort they still bring as we face the harsh realities of life. As we leave behind homes and loved ones in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves, one cannot help but grasp onto such comforts a little tighter. 

FS: Like much of Lucien’s work,petite apocalypse” is simultaneously inviting and jarring. The fence alludes to partitions, divisions and borders as the artist is Haitian-American and references to the diaspora appear through some of the other works too. The partition elements recall Morel Doucet’s recent exhibition at Galerie Myrtis, and I’m intrigued by how both artists with Haitian roots use these industrial elements with vernacular architectural applications. Steel is a refined, durable material but with added heat it becomes malleable. Systems too can seem extremely robust, yet with force and chemistry can be mended.

The physical labor is evident through the visible slag from the plasma cut edges, however, I find myself distracted by the welds in the wall hanging works, longing for a smoothing out of these elements and finer attention to detail in the methods of attachment to match the caliber of quality in the rest of the work. 

The idea of revolution, history and empire is further alluded to by a banner into which the phrase “LIBERTÉ OU LA MORT” ( “Liberty or Death!”) has been plasma cut. This motto was coined with the First Haitian Empire, an elective monarchy created in 1804. A small apocalypse, a revolution, or a coup could be seen as a beginning rather than an end, alluding to the turbulent revolutionary history of Haiti and its current crisis. 

AV: Lucien continues that train of thought in “pye bwa (mourning the one they pierced),” a sculpture composed of cast iron royal palm leaves. Royal palm leaves are depicted in the Haitian flag, centered as one of the main national symbols. The collection of materials for the sculpture simulate the immigrant experience, having had to undergo a journey themselves in order to be cast after arriving at Baltimore. Lucien describes the leaves as receiving new life that “honors the fallen for what they have given to the living.” Immortalized in iron, the royal palm leaves are symbolic of Haitian liberation, the freedom that is rightfully won after battling against loss, hardship, and colonization. 

As a Caribbean person myself, I feel intimately connected to Lucien’s work. It is infused with elements of Haiti’s history, and compelled me to research the phrase “LIBERTÉ OU LA MORT” after being so touched by the piece. I learned it is the title of the The Haitian Declaration of Independence written by Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1804. These details feel like elements of an open love letter to Lucien’s cultural heritage, infused with pride and admiration for Haiti and its people. This sense of pride for your homeland is something I can deeply relate to and clearly envision in the artwork.

FS: Overall, I feel both enthusiasm and melancholy looking at Lucien’s work. The former because they work with steel and iron—and I love seeing heavy duty materials brought into the gallery space—and sadness because of their references to the bloody history and current crisis in Haiti, as well as alluding to migration. While my own migratory experience is different, the cast palm leaf reminds me of natural objects that I have carried with me from home. Leaving a home behind is both an end and a new beginning. 


Nekisha Durrett

Nekisha Durrett, Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

FS: While Lucien references natural motifs through representative images, Nekisha Durrett focuses on using the inherent qualities of the materials themselves. Clay, soil, wood and leaves are both important materially and conceptually. Through the repetition of clay teardrop vessels Durrett not only elevates a forgotten history in “Queen City,” but also alludes to the collective power of voices and the importance of craft in fine art. 

AV: Nekisha Durrett utilizes natural materials as tools of communication to embody loss. “Queen City” makes use of clay as a medium to its maximum capacity, displaying it as both natural soil and transformed into ceramic teardrop vessels, which are organized in sculptural shelves along the wall. The piece is a commemoration of the demolition of Queen City, a Black neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia and the 903 people that lost their homes in 1941 due to the construction of the Pentagon.

The soil background serves as a reminder of what the vases once were. Just as soil is simply a natural resource without human intervention to change into something functional, land cannot be transformed into neighborhoods and homes without human connection and unity. Memorializing such large-scale loss in a multi-layered piece involving multiple artists, historians, and more, “Queen City” depicts each of the neighborhood’s individuals’ unique lives by holding space for 903 different ceramic vessels.


Nekisha Durrett, "Magnolia," 2020, Magnolia Leaves, poplar, velvet, acrylic sheeting, LED lighting. Photo by BmoreArt
Nekisha Durrett, "Magnolia," 2020, Magnolia Leaves, poplar, velvet, acrylic sheeting, LED lighting. Photo by BmoreArt
The numerical repetition throughout Durrett’s work feels like a reckoning as we are confronted with just how many times the systems in place have failed the Black community and will continue to fail unless we actively work towards reformation. 
Adriana Vélez

FS: All the natural elements Durrett uses have resilience and a connection to the environment. In “Magnolia,” individual names of Black women murdered by law enforcement are cut onto magnolia leaves. Here too, the repetition feels meditative and a way to process grief. Community and collectives are central elements that weave through and inspire Durrett’s work. She successfully captures individual stories and memories through her projects that require research, management, and curatorial elements to demonstrate and elevate the micro narratives in larger historical pictures. The way that the leaves pass through their stages and natural life cycles reflect on the stages of grief.

Importantly, both works elevate the memory of Black individuals who have lost their homes or lives to racist systems. “Magnolia” feels like a soft monument, and this softness holds power. I’m simultaneously saddened and outraged. There is so much overlooked and erased history of Black communities destroyed in the name of city development, like Baltimore’s own Highway to Nowhere that dissected vibrant West Baltimore neighborhoods in the 1970s and was never completed. Durrett’s work is crucial in amplifying these forgotten narratives and the individuals within them as well as crafting and connecting current Black creative communities.

AV: Speaking of community, the leaves in “Magnolia” were specifically collected from Rock Creek Church Cemetery in Durrett’s Washington, DC neighborhood—anchoring the piece in a time and space for the viewer. Each leaf commemorates the life of a Black woman murdered by law enforcement. The use of magnolia leaves as an artistic material is a carefully and deliberately made choice, as they are a resistant natural material often overlooked by the general public in favor of its tree’s flowers, just as the unjustifiable and racially motivated murders of these women are often not given the media attention and justice they deserve. The use of natural materials specific to one location creates a direct link between people, the artist, and art involved, cementing us in the moment and as part of our environment.

The source of “Magnolia’s” power is found within its reverence for the sanctity of life and the size of the work’s physical scale. The artwork carries such a profound sentiment and commands a large presence in the exhibition. It makes me pause and take in each frame encasing a different name, news stories of these women’s unjust murders filling my head as I recognize the names. The numerical repetition throughout Durrett’s work feels like a reckoning as we are confronted with just how many times the systems in place have failed the Black community and will continue to fail unless we actively work towards reformation. 


Kyrae Dawaun

Kyrae Dawaun, one of three finalists for the Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize stands with his work: "a convenient coop." Photo by BmoreArt
Kyrae Dawaun, installation view. Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

AV: Kyrae Dawaun’s collection of paintings is arranged as an interconnected body of work, each piece interacting with one another and further developing the multilayered message Dawaun aims to share with the viewer. At the center of the collection, “tolerance”, a multimedia abstract sculpture, serves as the nucleus of the space. Dawaun’s oil on wood paintings depict famous figures, chickens, and nature. These subjects are representative of the collective, current socio-political systems, and the ways in which individuals choose to conform to or disrupt those systems. 

FS: I first saw Dawaun’s work as part of the Arlington Art Center’s Solos in 2022. I also appreciate his meticulous, detail-oriented craft that includes both sculpture and paintings. While visually the two media are different—the painting is figurative and realistic, the sculpture more abstract—an intimate material sensibility passes through both practices. 

I’m also drawn to “tolerance,” made with redwood, cinnabar, limestone, gypsum, and chromium oxide alkyd. This work is abstract but evocative—referencing architecture through its materials and nature through its color palette. Colors in the sculpture specifically reach to the red underpaint in the wall-hanging portraits. Dawaun used a soybean-based spray paint on gypsum. That unusual material choice and the piece’s accordion-like form remind me of a caterpillar, alluding to ideas of transformation, specifically in reference to sociopolitical systems. 

AV: “tolerance” does bring to mind the story of The Hungry Caterpillar… possibly providing  commentary on capitalism as an ever-hungry beast, unforgivingly consuming us as we feed into its own destructive system. 

Likewise, the two chicken-centric paintings, “out or about (jungle fowl)” and “a convenient coop”, are representative of amalgamated masses that follow their leaders out of instinct rather than insight. “A convenient coop”, depicting a lone hen, has an elongated frame that simulates the look of a chicken coop’s ramp. The piece’s title serves as a clear double entendre, making reference to Dawaun’s goal of highlighting government propaganda, camaraderie, and the formation of different systems of governments. 


Kyrae Dawaun, Installation view. Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum
Kyrae Dawaun. Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

FS: A reference to political systems also becomes evident in Dawaun’s three portraits “ressembler (Fishburne),” “ressembler (Douglas),” and “ressembler (Marx),” which present prominent figures: a contemporary actor and two historical theorists and activists, respectively. As the men all gaze into the center, a discursive panopticon is brought together, which is bookended by two paintings of birds. 

If only engaging in a surface-level interpretation, the artist presents traditional portraits and paintings of animals. However, delving deeper into the underlying symbolism, context, and artistic technique is crucial for a better understanding of Dawaun’s rich practice. The painting and sculpture function together to build a larger historical narrative and break out of hegemonic systems. With the dense layering of symbols, and histories, sometimes his installation feels like puzzles that forces the viewer to slow down and contemplate each work individually and then together as an ecosystem. 

Kyrae Dawaun, Installation view. Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum
Installation view with works by Nekisha Durrett (foreground) and Abigail Lucien. Photo by Elena Damon, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.
The works function to make me pause, think and consider my presence and effect in larger social systems. These artists not only fabricate objects, but an experience of questioning and meditation.
Fanni Somogyi

Collectively, the Janet and Walter Sondheim Art Prize 2023 Finalist Exhibition is an exploration of how far artists can transform their chosen materials in their multimedia artwork. 

Abigail Lucien crafts an implosion of narratives in their metalwork, delicately narrating what home and belonging can mean to oneself. Nekisha Durrett ensures collective remembrance of instances in which the racist social infrastructure of the country has failed to protect Black people. Kyrae Dawaun explores the larger bodies of government and socio-economic infrastructure that make up the systems we inhabit. He bravely asks us if we are part of the system, following blindly, or if we can turn a critical eye towards the failing branches that could drag us down in the process. 

Even though each artist presents deeply personal stories, they are relevant and relatable to diverse viewership. The personal can become political as we exist in larger social systems that often exploit, constrain, and inhibit us. However, this is also a great entryway into artworks. 

Lucien, Durrett, and Dawaun hold an intimate relationship with their materials and captivate the viewer through these explorations. The smoothness of steel vs. a glazed blue surface against rough dried soil vs. glistening oil paint are all alluring and invite us closer for deeper inspection of both the craft and the artist’s infused memories. The works function to make me pause, think and consider my presence and effect in larger social systems. These artists not only fabricate objects, but an experience of questioning and meditation.

The viewer walks away feeling like an active node within a larger network and an open eye to draining social infrastructures and to the power of the collective that can feed us.


The Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize Finalists Exhibition Award Ceremony will take place August 17, 2023, 6–8 p.m. at the Walters Art Museum. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is encouraged.


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