What does it mean to be black?
This is one of the questions D.C.-based artist Larry Cook addressed through his photographs and video art during a solo exhibit, “Looking Black at Me,” on display in the Stamp Gallery.
Cook, 27, said his untitled series, inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness theory, aimed to galvanize dialogue around the issue of self-awareness and identity black Americans struggle with.
Cook first began focusing on photography as a freshman at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, while he picked up video art along the way as another experimental platform. Artists such as Seth Price and Dara Birnbaum inspired him, Cook said.
“All of the pieces are a reflection of my own struggle,” Cook said. “I see my work as being autobiographical – [it] is a reflection of my experience being a black man.”
The first part of the exhibit featured two photographs of black males facing each other, holding eye contact while their shadows blurred in the background.
The photographs featured the juxtaposition between one sharply-dressed and groomed male against a longer-haired man in mundane clothing.
Chidi Nwaneri, a senior communications major, said she thought Cook’s photographs represented the way black Americans see themselves versus how others see them.
Junior early childhood education major Hannah Chung said she didn’t take anything away from the photographs until she looked closer and noticed the details of the clothing and the men’s expressions.
“When I first saw the exhibition, it seemed really simple,” Chung said. “But I felt like the artist wanted you to think deeper.”
The gallery also features two large screens replaying videos of a young black male and female holding red signal flares with an audio recording of the S.O.S. Morse code playing in the background.
“I don’t know if he was going for this, but the juxtaposition of it was that [they’re] holding a flare with the S.O.S. Morse code, but no one’s coming to help,” Nwaneri said.
The last pieces of the exhibit are video portraits of four young black males with face and neck tattoos, titled “Deandre, Aujena, Douglas, Henry,” displayed on a silent 13-minute loop on two different screens.
Nwaneri admitted staring at their faces made her feel uncomfortable because if she saw them in real life, she wouldn’t have the nerve to stare at them for that long. And maybe that was the point, she said.
“They have emotions as well,” Nwaneri said. “Sometimes, they want to be heard.”
But black Americans aren’t the only ones struggling with identity, Cook said.
“All ethnicities who’ve lived in a country where their parents of grandparents weren’t born deal with some level of double consciousness,” Cook said. “Though, this [exhibit] is framed around black Americans, I hope everyone can relate to some degree.”
Cook said “Looking Black at Me” is still a work in progress, though he does have several other pieces he’s looking forward to. Cook is preparing for Art Basel this upcoming winter and has a solo show next May at the Hamiltonian Gallery.
As a Korean-American, Chung said she understands the theory of double consciousness because of the two cultures she grew up with, but never thought about it before looking at Cook’s art.
“Everyone’s looking for their identity,” she said. “It’s hard [to find] when you have two.”
For those interested, Cook’s work is on display at the Stamp Gallery until Oct. 18.
Maria Kim is a senior Bloc reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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