Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Through his powerful gallery show, “The Naked Truth: an American Story through White, Red, and Blue,” Nigerian-born, Memphis-based artist Ephraim Urevbu extended a call to action to Belmont’s community.
“The Naked Truth” is Urevbu’s 55-piece exhibition addressing the deep-rooted racism in America’s history and the racism that still persists today. The collection was commissioned by the University of Memphis five years ago and is currently on a tour of college campuses, with Belmont’s Leu Gallery as its first stop.
Urevbu’s collection aims to generate conversation around racism in American society and instill a sense of urgency in audiences to act — particularly an audience of students, the artist said.
“I want to focus mostly on young people. It’s their generation that has to sacrifice to make the necessary change in this chaotic world. My generation is set in our ways. We’re not going to change, and that is why I have decided to focus this show through non-commercial galleries,” he said.
The contemporary, collage-style paintings spark shock and sadness. Highlighting topics ranging from money, trigger words, personal stories and protests, each piece tackles different issues with the intention of telling stories that are often ignored in America.
“You notice that we usually say, ‘red, white and blue,’ but on purpose I titled this ‘white, red and blue,’” Urevbu said at an artist talk Thursday night. “America has so many stories, but the stories have been told predominantly from a white perspective.”
“Everybody has a story to tell. It’s how you tell those stories. So that’s what this show is all about.”
One painting depicts a man who bears a striking resemblance to police brutality victim George Floyd, though it was created long before that name was making headlines in May 2020.
“I did that piece two years before George Floyd happened. I knew nothing about George Floyd when I painted this, and that tells you something. As I was working on these pieces, this would happen even more,” Urevbu said.
“I was not in control of this work. The work was in total control of me.”
A few of the pieces address the plight of immigrants in the United States.
“The history of America started with that: ‘from many, one.’ So it took immigrants from all over the world to create a great nation. That is the foundation of America, and when people try to go out of that foundation, we get into trouble. And that’s what’s happening to us today. Immigrants created this country,” he said.
Urvebu said that the show is “a call to action.” This call is brought through artwork that is difficult to look at at times.
One depicts a woman who lost her child through extreme brutality for asking a sheriff why her husband was lynched in the 1940s. Another, titled “Strange Fruit,” shows nooses hung from an American flag. Another depicts racism as a cancer spreading through the country, with words like “money,” “politics,” “religion,” and “white supremacy,” stamped across the cells. “Viruses” depicts three Ku Klux Klan members representing three types of racism: institutional, personal and internalized.
“When you go through this show, you’re actually embedding images in your subconscious. Images that are going to be very hard for you to erase for a long time. The idea is to have these images stay with you with the intent of you doing something,” Urevbu said.
Though creating and touring the collection was a financial sacrifice for Urevbu, it seemed necessary, the artist said.
In order to help pay for the collection, Urevbu and his wife printed a book with all the pieces in it and started the candle line Good Trouble, which shares its name with a series of paintings in the collection that highlight the history of protests as well as the legal consequences of fighting back against racism.
“Tell the truth and get into good trouble,” explained Urevbu. “Tell the truth and express yourself. In so doing, you might get into trouble. You might go to jail,” he said.
Because of its heavy content about racial injustice, the project remains difficult to digest for audiences. It was also difficult for Urevbu, who got emotional while talking through the pieces.
“These are tears of gratefulness. They are tears of joy. It’s not all pain. Because I just feel so privileged to be given such an opportunity at this stage of my life, to really help a country I love so much,” he said.
This impactful collection of paintings had an obvious effect on the students and faculty attending the artist talk. With many in tears, Urevbu invited questions, initiated conversations about viewers’ reactions and spoke on audiences’ receptiveness to the collection in the past.
He acknowledged that he understood that it was a difficult subject, but that it was time to talk about it.
“People haven’t talked about this for so long. They hide and talk about things in their little safe zones. I want to crush all those safe zones and bring it out in the open,” said Urevbu.
“Let’s look eye to eye and talk about it.”
“The Naked Truth” will be exhibited at the Leu Gallery through Dec. 10.
PHOTO: Ephraim Urevbu (center) at an artist talk for the exhibition Sept. 23 alongside James Pierce (left), dean of Belmont’s Watkins College of Art. Belmont Vision / Margot Pierson
This article was written by Margot Pierson.