Black History = American History: Multimedia Art Exhibition Informs and Inspires

artist working on basquiat portraits

UCLA Lab School is celebrating contributions by Black and African Americans to the culture and history of the United States with a special exhibition, Black History = American History.

Portraits of six iconic figures combine visual art with free-flowing poetry and graphic design. The intent is to inspire viewers to continue to solve the problems the icons have tackled in their lives and their work, said Michael-Jerred (MJ) Glover, a writer, artist and curator of the exhibition, who is a parent at the school.

“Each of these figures faced challenges, solved problems, led movements that changed the perspective in how we see the world, and how we treat each other,” Glover said.

The focus is on figures who have made contributions in six categories of society:

  • George Washington Carver, for Agriculture
  • Katherine Johnson, for Math and Science
  • Martin Luther King, for Civil Rights
  • Ava DuVernay, for Community
  • Jean Michel Basquiat, for Art
  • Kobe Bryant, for Sports
portrait of basketball icon kobe bryant

The portraits by artist Nikk Mohammed make use of a variety of drawing techniques. The intent is to “showcase the uniqueness of each icon and to illustrate to the students how the different mediums can be joined together to help tell the story,” Mohammed said. “We chose charcoal, color pencil, airbrush, oil pastel, risography, textile, fabrics, laser cutting, and custom plexiglass and wood framing to convey our idea.”

Each portrait is accompanied by Glover’s original poetry, written in a “meditative, stream of consciousness style, where rhythm, attributes, empathy and information collide, then …form a narrative to create a ‘free-style’, a one of a kind ‘song’ that takes flight like a bird.”

About Katherine Johnson, Glover writes: “…Those in ‘charge’ tried to render you static. / But you allowed numbers to dance, roam freely in your mind, / mapping a specific pathway to Outer space for mankind.”

His poem for Martin Luther King, Jr. says: “You are a ‘Spiritual Rooster’, / telling all to ‘wake up’, / and rise like the great Sun. / Behold, your Dream has begun.”

graphic poster of a poem for ava duvernay
ava duvernay portrait and poetry
poet MJ Glover teaching in classroom

MJ Glover at book reading/Q&A for English Department (photo provided by the artist)

artist Nikk Mohammed at work

Nikk Mohammed, painting in DTLA Studio (photo provided by the artist)

The two collaborators often tap graphic artist Sam Danan to join them, as they have done for Black History = American History. Danan designs arrangements for Glover’s writings to complement Mohammed’s portrait making.

“Ultimately, our goal was to create a unique interactive, transformative installation that will immerse the viewer in art, narrative, and process,” Glover said.

artist working on portrait of MLK
portrait of NASA mathematician and physicist katherine johnson
art portrait of george washington carver
portrait of martin luther king jr

Inspiration for the exhibition flowed naturally from Glover and Mohammed’s ongoing project called Prismatic Studies, which is based on the idea “that we all have something personally unique that we can offer to the world. We just have to walk into the ‘Light’ to activate our true hue, much like a glass Prism when light shines through it and the colors of the spectrum come flowing out of the other side,” Glover said.

Prismatic Studies often uses figures as subjects, and Glover, whose daughter is a student in the ECI Dual Language Program, saw an opportunity to enrich the learning of students at the Lab School.

“Using the Prismatic Studies’ base DNA of writing and image making, and infusing them together was the ideal mode to invite the students to celebrate said contributions but also challenge them to ask themselves the question(s), What can I contribute to my Classroom, to my Family, to my Community and ultimately to the World? — ‘What is the Problem?’ — ‘How can I creatively make a solution?’ — Like MLK, Like Carver, Like DuVernay,” Glover said.

Follow the Artists and Learn More

MJ Glover
Instagram: @MJGNNC

Nikk Mohammed
Instagram: @HonorableMohammed

Sam Danan