On August 8, 2023, BU School of Visual Arts hosted a Photography Roundtable with artists Cheryl Miller, Marilyn Nance, and OJ Slaughter. Convened by Beacon Gallery’s non-profit arm, Show Up, the Roundtable brought in a large audience who lingered afterward to continue the conversation and have Nance sign her award-winning book, Last Day in Lagos. The book is an archival document of Nance’s work as a photographer for the US delegation of the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77) held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.
The Roundtable was planned in relation to Miller’s current residency and exhibition at Beacon Gallery, If We Stand Tall, on view through August 27. “As a former City and Regional Planner, Miller focuses on the economic, social, and political development of communities, neighborhoods, and the people that make them thrive. She does this by ‘capturing images of African Americans viewed through a kaleidoscope of everyday experiences: the rites, rituals, social norms, mores of how people live, work, play, conduct business, raise children, build families and community, create art, educate, worship, entertain, invent…in spite of the history of hundreds of years of enslavement, Jim Crow and existing racist systems, that have not thwarted our efforts to flourish magnificently.’ She insists that ‘honoring and revering our ancestors’ is the catalyst for this success.” (Beacon Gallery)
Self-taught Boston-based photographer OJ Slaughter brought an important contemporary voice to the table. Slaughter asks their subjects to choose what their story looks like, and they focus on a person’s right to shape their own history and appearance on camera. All three artists discussed history and archives with moderator and scholar, Dr. Jovonna Jones, Assistant Professor of African American Literature and Culture at Boston College. Their discussion resonated with SVA’s goal to share less-visible histories through the lens of contemporary creative production. SVA recently reorganized its Visual Arts Research and Resource Library, re-engaging with its own historical reports, artwork, alumni catalogs, taped conversations, letters, and other materials, holding active conversations about the best ways to care for, honor, and share and expand on the history of artists and art institutions.
The Roundtable opens the path for the second year of SVA’s MFA in Print Media & Photography. While most students were on break for the summer, some students and faculty members were able to attend, including Toni Pepe, Assistant Professor of Art and Chair, Department of Photography.
We expect the photographic moment to be instantaneous, captured in 1/1000 of a second. However, artists like Cheryl Miller, whose work is durational and grounded in the relationships she has built over decades, illustrate the importance of time and process in photography. Events like the roundtable discussion are incredibly important for our community. Our students should understand the history of their discipline beyond the canon.
During the engaging conversation, Dr. Jones expertly included the audience in responsive close-looking at each photographer’s work. The conversation led to an in-depth dialogue with the artists about the role of community in relation to each of their works, both what it means to photograph others, and what it means to sustain a life as working artists in a larger community of peers. Miller and Nance, who have known each other for many years, emphasized the importance of visibility of the work of Black photographers of the 20th century.
Rosemary Engstrom, Lecturer in Photography, brought her Summer Term Photography students to the event, noting, “I was thrilled to bring my photography students to the roundtable where they had the chance to hear cross-generational perspectives on the medium. We were reminded that photography is relational, a way to form connections with people. As we engaged with the work together, teachers, students, artists, and community members, a sense of comradery naturally formed. Strong, honest photography brings us together.”
Beacon Gallery’s dedication to nurturing community development, promoting accessibility within the arts, and facilitating meaningful dialogues seamlessly aligns with the vision of SVA. Amalgamating networks engages a broader audience, and prospects for interconnection and cooperation flourish.
This roundtable highlights the considerable potential at the juncture of art, dialogue, and community-building. Looking ahead, BU School of Visual Arts enthusiastically looks forward to developing new pathways for partnerships, while nurturing community through thoughtful conversations and creative initiatives.
About the Panelists, Moderator & Event Organizers
As a former City and Regional Planner, Cheryl Miller focuses on the economic, social, political, and physical development of communities, neighborhoods, and the people that make them thrive. Cheryl does this by “capturing images of African Americans viewed through a kaleidoscope of everyday experiences: the rites, rituals, social norms, mores, how people live, work, play, conduct business, raise children, build families and community, create art, educate, worship, entertain, invent…[despite] of the history of hundreds of years of enslavement, and existing racist systems that have not thwarted our efforts to flourish magnificently.” Cheryl insists that “honoring and revering our ancestors” is the catalyst for this success.
Although self-taught, Cheryl was an Adjunct Lecturer in photography at The Tisch Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University, The City University of New York, and taught in the NYC Public School System. These images have been exhibited internationally and are published in Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers, FREEDOM: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle, Reflections In Black – A History of Black Photographers 1840-Present, A History of New York In Images – CITYSCAPES, and Black: A Celebration of A Culture, Long Shot, and Black New York Photographers of the 20th Century. The work will be featured in the upcoming edition of ReFraming: REFLECTIONS IN BLACK by Deborah Willis. View Cheryl’s website or follow her on Instagram for more information. Currently, Miller is working on a book project, If We Stand Tall…Recollections of Spirits Past, (KMW Studio Publishing).
Over the course of five decades, Marilyn Nance has produced photographs of unique moments in the cultural history of the US and the African Diaspora, culminating in an archive of images of late-twentieth-century African American life. A two-time finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography, Nance is a recipient of a 2022 Magnum Foundation Counter Histories Grant and a 2023 New York State Council of the Arts Individual Artists Grant. Her work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) and the Library of Congress, and has been published in The World History of Photography, History of Women in Photography and The Black Photographers Annual.
While serving as the photographer for the US delegation of the FESTAC 77, Nance made one of the most comprehensive photographic accounts of the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture. In 2022, she published Marilyn Nance: Last Day in Lagos, a focused study of Nance through an archival encounter with her documentation of FESTAC 77.
Through their work, OJ Slaughter has defied traditional constraints of photography and leads the charge to document the history of right now. By asking their subjects to choose what their story looks like, they focus on a person’s right to shape their own history and appearance on camera. A self-taught photographer, their work has been featured by Vogue Italia, Time Magazine, and the Boston Art Review, as well as other prominent publications and projects.
Their work in racial justice earned them an Honorarium from the Harvard University Committee on the Arts, and they have become a fixture of the Boston area artistic community. Their focus on light, movement, and color in their work lends a vibrant, living quality to their photographs that is wholly unique and empowers them to capture the true nature of today’s living history. After their tenure as the artist in residence at Harvard Art Lab and Windy Films, they have continued their focus on racial justice and social change through actively seeking out subjects and artists of color and collaborations with people of all genders. They have been privileged to lend their skills to Hilary Hahn, Ayanna Pressley, and The Boston Globe, and as creative director for WBUR’s Sound On Series.
Dr. Jovonna Jones is an Assistant Professor of African American Literature and Culture at Boston College specializing in photography and visual studies, space and place, and Black feminist criticism. She has published articles on visuality and black thought in Souls and Callaloo. Her writing has appeared in Aperture, Southern Cultures, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Her current project, The Last Thanksgiving at West Rutland Square, blends family history, spatial study, and visual archives to resurface Black life in Boston’s South End in the wake of displacement. She is also at work on a visual and architectural study of Black women’s rooming houses, exploring how these sites–and their contemporary traces–materialize and memorialize Black feminist world-building in the early twentieth century.
Jovonna is the recipient of fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and the Provost’s Fellows Program at Dartmouth College. She holds her PhD and MA from Harvard University and BA from Emory University.
Beacon Gallery is a contemporary art gallery located in Boston’s South End, providing a platform for emerging and established artists to deliver thought-provoking solo and group shows, and community-building events. As a partner to greater Boston’s artistic community, Beacon Gallery is committed to producing thoughtfully curated exhibitions that showcase original conceptual art and share compelling messages and unique perspectives. It aims to make art accessible to the general public, as well as collectors and institutions locally, nationally, and globally. Beacon Gallery’s Artist-in Residence program is run by its nonprofit arm which is supported in part by the Teuber Family Foundation and the Mass Cultural Council.
Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts prepares students to think seriously, to see critically, to make intensely, and to act with creative agency in the contemporary world. The School of Visual Arts merges the intensive studio education of an art school with the opportunities of a large urban university, and is committed to educating the eye, hand, and mind of the artist. With rigorous graduate and undergraduate fine art programs that are rooted in studio practice, CFA School of Visual Arts provides highly motivated students with programs in the bedrock disciplines, of the fine arts coupled with a vast array of electives and liberal arts opportunities.