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U of M exhibition: ‘Largest assemblance of Black American photography ever’

“A Picture Gallery of the Soul” at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery opened back in September and is believed to represent a cultural milestone.

MINNEAPOLIS — A University of Minnesota group exhibition is breaking boundaries in the art and global communities with more than 200 images documenting the Black American experience.

“A Picture Gallery of the Soul” at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery opened back in September and is believed to represent – in just its existence – a cultural milestone.

“This is probably the largest assemblance of Black American photography ever. I mean ever,” said Dr. Herman Milligan, the exhibition’s co-curator, along with Howard Oransky.

Milligan continued, “This exhibition is three centuries of Black American photography from the 19th through the 21st century.”

A groundbreaking exhibition 

Its name alone implies a historic significance. After all, the title of the exhibition, filled with powerful images, was inspired by one of America’s most brilliant orators.

“It’s called the ‘Picture Gallery of the Soul’ based on the quote by Frederick Douglass,” Milligan told KARE 11’s Karla Hult on a recent weekday while strolling through the gallery.

“Frederick Douglass wrote four essays on photography and… in one of those essays, he’s referencing that human beings – if you look at them in terms of a repository of knowledge – you can look at their soul as a picture gallery,” Milligan further explained.

And this current picture gallery is both significant and poignant, with more than 100 artists capturing monumental moments throughout our collective history. From images capturing the lingering landmarks of slavery to a portrait of one of the first Black American attorneys in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a 2020 protest at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis.

“It was a dramatic shift,” Milligan noted about the sudden prominence in Black American photography – or other art – in galleries throughout the art and global communities. “It’s unfortunate that it takes people to be killed in the street by police or other unfortunate ways to die to have that kind of a movement.”

Milligan further notes the exhibition covers both the triumphs and tragedies through varied styles, techniques and genres. And while the exhibition features famous photographers – Dawoud Bey, Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems and Kwame Braithwaite, for example – it also features the more obscure and up-and-coming artists.

“I think it was critical that you do have photographers represented who are part of the here and now and help tell the story of the 360 degrees of the Black American experience from the point of view of a Black American photographer,” he noted, adding that Oransky and he started compiling the collection back in 2016.

And the resulting breadth of representation has resonated, both in terms of volume of visitors and in sales of the exhibition’s catalog on online platforms.

“If it’s number one on Amazon in Art History, I think it’s doing pretty good,” Milligan noted.

What’s more, Milligan was also able to lend his musical expertise to this exhibition, by curating a soundscape of jazz music that can accompany a person’s stroll through the gallery.

A local trailblazer

And here’s where we discover a case of art imitating life. Though his humility would prefer to minimize his own impressive history, Milligan himself is a trailblazer.

“I was the first Black American to get a Ph.D. in Sociology (at the University of Minnesota) when I graduated in 1982,” Milligan acknowledged when pressed about his academic and professional achievements.

Among Milligan’s other accolades: working as an analyst for Norwest, then Wells Fargo, banks; serving on countless community arts and literary boards and committees (the Walker Art Center and Milkweed Editions, among them); and serving on the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission from 1984 to 1994, during which he “wrote two reports, of which one – the second report – led to the establishment of the Civilian Review Authority here in Minneapolis.”

It's that prolific path Milligan – who’s also married and has a daughter – sees reflected in the lens of his fellow artists.

“There is for me like an intersection of my life that’s basically shown here on the wall,” Milligan shared.

But Milligan also hopes the exhibition resonates with everyone – both those in the Black American and other communities – as a sort of composite gallery of the soul.

“So you see people who are, over time, they have gotten their law degrees, or they graduated out of beauty school or they became nurses or fathers or mothers,” he said, adding, “These are the universal behaviors – or life experiences – that we all go through.”

A Picture Gallery of the Soul: Final days of exhibition 

Time is running out to see, firsthand, “A Picture Gallery of the Soul.” The exhibition closes at the University of Minnesota on Dec. 10. 

To learn more about the exhibition, hours and location, click here.


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