Annie Chrissy Burley gets vulnerable in 'Shava'

The exhibit is part of a trio show at Roy G Biv on display through May 8

Andy Downing
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"The Tears of Part 1"

“Hand Practice,” one of the pieces by Annie Chrissy Burley currently on display at Roy G Biv in Franklinton, features a series of fists colored atop a sheet of clear plastic, the clenched grasps representative of the Black power fists that are a common site at protests. Beneath the plastic sheet, though, are numerous sketches of hands drawn from varying angles and in myriad positions, symbolizing the full breadth of Black humanity that is often lost in the images and narratives that circulate within pop culture and the media.

“Black representation, in general, has never been in the hands of Black people,” said Burley, whose work, collectively billed as “Shava” (to cry out in Hebrew), appears alongside pieces by Aimee Wissman and Tyler Davis in an exhibit that will remain on display through May 8.

Discussing the roots that informed the work on display, Burley, who studied animation at CCAD, touched on everything from the way minstrelsy informed some of the earliest attempts at animation (a history detailed in Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation by Nicholas Sammond) to the high rates of Black femicide within the United States to the cultural response to David Walker’s Appeal, which published in 1829 and laid bare the ethical bankruptcy of slavery in a way that spooked the nation, and which was subsequently buried.

“It shocked the world at the time, to the point where you had books that subtly countered it, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Gone With the Wind, where people took it and incorporated some of the narratives, but framed themselves as the heroes,” Burley said. 

“And I say all of that because it kind of resonates with the work I’m making for the show, because I struggle with these narratives, with this representation,” she continued. “Now, Black women are at the forefront of the conversation, but there’s still this weird dehumanization where the Black woman is not present in her fullness.”

As one example, Burley traced how Black women were historically represented by the mammy figure, a slave who would be tasked with bringing up the children within a white family. The mammy was generally portrayed as strong and unflappable, Burley said, but a portion of her emotions were always kept hidden, and her full humanity was never on display and never fully belonged to her.

“To be a slave means you aren’t human; you’re literally property,” Burley said. “And I find now that we’re regurgitating some of those images. When you say, ‘Black women can save America,’ in a way you’re regurgitating the mammy trope, right? Because it’s the Black woman’s labor, and the Black woman is nurturing all these groups of people, and yet she is pushed to the side. … And my work is that struggle, because I’m not finding my full humanity in those images.”

Certain pieces in “Shava” appear designed to strip things down to the studs, such as “Specimen,” a twisted resin mold of a register peg bar, which is an essential tool for beginning the animation process. “It’s the foundation, where you’re registering the paper to animate on,” Burley said of the object, which here is twisted and distorted in a way that suggests that foundation is warped, perhaps hinting at the bloodshed and cruelty on which the nation was founded.

“We can go through our lives and forget the blood. I don’t even know what’s under this concrete, if there was blood shed under this concrete,” Burley said, tapping her foot on the gallery floor. “But we already know about Ohio and its history, especially with Native Americans, and that’s the foundation for everything that’s there. … You can’t have the foundation of a nation be built on killing people and then turn around and say, ‘In God we trust.’ … God sees that, and he sees that history crying out.

At the same time, the works on display can be intensely personal, capturing a rawness, a softness and a frailty that gives needed dimension to the image of Black women sometimes portrayed in media.

“The full breadth of my humanity — my mind, body and soul — is really expressed in that vulnerability,” Burley said. “'Shava,' in Hebrew, means to cry out, and 2020 has just been fully crying out. Fully crying out, it grounds you. It grounds you in who you are. It grounds you in your full humanity. … Sometimes I want to fall out and cry about the reality of the world we’re living in.

“And there needs to be that space for mourning,” Burley continued. “Because my people are just being hardened of heart, and hardened and hardened and hardened. … We’re grown up being told to stop crying. But that is a mechanism of survival, and it’s not good. … Survival is actually expressed in embracing that ability to cry out.”