Memphis artist creates exhibit to start dialogue on racism

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In a new exhibit, a Memphis artist wants to get people talking about racism, not only in Memphis but all over America.

Walking through Urevbu Contemporary in downtown Memphis is a journey through racism in this country. No subject matter off limits, including religion and politics.

“Are we hiding behind Christianity, or we hiding behind the very foundation of this country?” said gallery visitor Sheneka Williams.

Artist Ephraim Urevbu titled this solo exhibition “The Naked Truth: An American Story in White, Red And Blue”, displaying the truth about racism as he sees it on canvases.

“The main reason we are not engaging each other is we are not prepared to hear the truth,” Urevbu said.

He started working on this collection in 2017, and he found as he was painting, the art was catching up with him. It was catching up with real life.

“So, when Ferguson happened, I decided okay maybe I can do something,” Urevbu said. “What can I do? I felt I’m too old to be out there demonstrating but I have a tool. I have a gift which is my art.”

When demonstrators took to the streets, Urevbu picked up his brushes and went to work.  His art was not just imitating life, but at times the images appearing on canvas before actual events.

In one painting, the subject looks remarkably similar to George Floyd, but Urevbu completed it in 2019, before Floyd would become a household name after dying at the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer.

“George Floyd happened last year, right? This piece I had completed, and it was in storage. I pulled this piece out two weeks ago and I go, “oh my God.” His face is right on that piece,” Urevbu said. “But who knew about George Floyd when I did it?”

Only a sampling of the exhibit hangs in his small downtown gallery. There are 55 pieces in all. The complete show travels to Nashville’s Belmont University in August and then it’s on to other colleges around the country.

University of Memphis President Dr. David Rudd attended the exhibit’s pre-opening and says it will make a return to Memphis so every painting can be displayed here as well.

“We actually are having in September a symposium on race relations in America where we’re unveiling an MLK speech that was donated to us and that will happen in September,” Rudd said. “I asked Ephraim if we could have the show come at that time.”

Rudd sees the exhibit as a teaching tool creating dialogue, discussion and debate.

“My hope is that you, me and anyone who sees the show, will be forced to react one way or the other,” Urevbu said, “and in the process of reacting, we might be able to begin the process of healing.”

The exhibit will be at the gallery through July 30, but Rudd says the university is working to bring it back to Memphis.

Rudd also said he’d love to have Urevbu come back to the University of Memphis as an artist in residence for a year. Urevbu is an alum of the university.

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