Biggs exhibit shows a slice of African-American life

In “Packaging of a Race,” part of Billy Colbert’s exhibit “Lessons,” at the Biggs Museum of American Art, Mr. Colbert uses found images and materials to reconsider the way people look at and imagine black life in the past and present. For this iteration of the work, the artist blends wheat-pasted images wrapped around shipping barrels with school photographs and class portraits from the segregation era. (Submitted photos)

DOVER — In conjunction with Dover’s Citywide Black History Celebration, the Biggs Museum of American Art is presenting a series of art installations by Delaware State University fine arts professor Billy Colbert.

His exhibition entitled “Lessons: An Exhibition By Billy Colbert” incorporates rare historic video and photographs of African-American life in the United States in the early 20th century alongside artifacts of the separate and unequal educational system on loan from the African-American community of Kent County.

The exhibit brings together sculpture, home movies, oral histories, atmospheric sound, and archival photographs from the artist’s own collection to examine the complex relationship between race and education in the U.S. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka of 1954 unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

“Keeping culture alive is important to me,” Mr. Colbert said.

“For me to do something for what I may feel is an unrepresented community, my community, I felt that I needed to do it. This project is in the wheelhouse of what I handle, which is the preservation and storytelling of black culture.”

A reception for the exhibit will take place Wednesday at the Biggs Museum in Dover from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Mr. Colbert’s exhibit will run until March 29.

Mr. Colbert said he’s been collecting vintage film depicting the lives of African Americans for years.

“I was lucky enough to realize these films were going to go away,” Mr. Colbert said.

“About 15 to 20 years ago I started collecting old footage. I got it digitized and then used it in the artwork. It tells the story of people’s lives. You get a glimpse to see what life was like during that time.”

Mr. Colbert said he was able to collect the footage in various ways.

Mr. Colbert has been collecting vintage film depicting the lives of African Americans for about 20 years.

“The part of the redevelopment of urban areas I would find people that were moving out of houses and a lot of times, these tapes would be in their basements,” Mr. Colbert said.

“Then from there, I started buying them from random places and then I started to seek them out. Sometimes it would be as simple as the flea market.”

This year’s theme for the Biggs Museum celebration is “African American Education Under Segregation.” Mr. Colbert is collecting oral histories from the local community centering on their experiences with education under segregation in Delaware.

He hopes to compile these interviews into a documentary of local history, which will be broadcast from the museum.

“Since we have access to people who lived through segregation I thought it would be great to put something like this together and kind of weave together that information to make a documentary,” Mr. Colbert said.

People are encouraged to share their stories of what life was like attending schools during segregation, as Ryan Grover, curator of the Biggs museum is more than excited about the upcoming event.

See the interview schedule on the museum’s website at biggsmuseum.org or call 302-674-2111 Ext. 108 to make an appointment to share your story.

“It’s going to be a great time,” Mr. Grover said. “I am excited for the oral histories that we may be able to record, to share with the Delaware State Archives and, of course, to give to Billy to create an original fine art video of the experiences from our back door.”

“We have lined up about six individuals so far who are interested in giving interviews,” he added.

Mr. Grover said the importance of the event will be beneficial for generations to come.

“American communities do not appear to discuss integration very openly and exhibitions and celebrations like this offer safe spaces to explore what was lost and gained by African-American communities through integration.”

Mr. Colbert shared the same sentiment.

Moving across time and location, Billy Colbert’s continuous video collage further examines the effects of segregation in the U.S. Projected onto the exterior walls of a fabricated schoolhouse made especially for this Biggs Museum exhibition, the work interweaves mid-20th century cultural artifacts and home video footage from the artist’s personal collection.

“When you watch these films, they debunk the whole mythology that Hollywood tries to play about African Americans because you see the same thing happening in these films that you would see anywhere else,” Mr. Colbert said.

“It might not be the wealth, but you still see happiness and you still see joy. It’s a good slice of the real black culture of what life was like during those times.”

“You get a chance to see the pride amongst African Americans in these different locations. There was a way of life. Some of these films show people building homes to doing regular life. They’re not celebrities. They’re everyday people, doing everyday things.”

The museum, at 406 Federal St., is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer living in Dover.