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Bell Gallery at Brown University Presents Toby Sisson: Nacirema

The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University is presenting Toby Sisson: Nacirema, a selection of eleven black ink monotypes by Toby Sisson (b. 1956) mounted on wooden panels and coated with bees’ wax encaustic.

Sisson’s encaustic monotypes unite her personal experience as a biracial individual with broader issues pertaining to identity and race. The word “American” is inscribed in each work as the artist explores the relationship between a word and its various meanings and their relationship to her abstract forms. “Nacirema” is an anagram for “American” and refers to a network of social clubs for black Americans established in the 20th century where members, including Sisson’s father, gathered.

This intentional inversion of the word speaks to the binary reality experienced by African Americans, termed “Double Consciousness” by W.E.B. DuBois who is among Sisson’s influences. In his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk,” DuBois wrote, “One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.”

Descended from enslaved Africans, European settlers and immigrants, and Cherokee Indians, Sisson recognizes and examines that “twoness” by emphasizing the word “American” among abstract forms—drawing on their dual associative powers. She invites viewers to join her in contemplating alternate readings of our national identity.

Jo-Ann Conklin, Director of the Bell Gallery, said, “We are delighted to present new work by Toby Sisson who lives and has her studio in Providence. The graphic elements of these compositions and her process of applying bees’ wax create an illusion of painting with their rich textures and sensuous surfaces.”

In addition to the content of her work being influenced by African American writers and current events, she also references the formal elements of African American artists as disparate as the Gees Bend quilters and the text-based works of Glenn Ligon.

An Associate Professor of Studio Art, Visual and Performing Arts Department, at Clark University, Sisson’s work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the U.S. and internationally. She received her MFA from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and BFA from the College of Visual Arts, St. Paul, MN.

About David Winton Bell Gallery
The David Winton Bell Gallery, an affiliated program of the Brown Arts Initiative, is Brown University’s contemporary art gallery and home to an important part of the University’s permanent art collection. The Gallery hosts four to five exhibitions each year with an emphasis on contemporary works by artists who address important issues of our time.

Broadly concerned with the presentation of exemplary work by artists living today, the Bell Gallery takes pride in showing artwork irrespective of media, content or subject and makes special efforts to support and show the work of emerging or under-recognized practitioners. Alongside the contemporary arts, the Gallery also makes use of its art historical collections, programming exhibitions on the arts and culture of the last five centuries. The Bell Gallery maintains a permanent collection of more than 6,000 works of art, dating from the 16th century to the present, with particularly rich holdings in contemporary art and works on paper.

Founded in 1971, the Gallery is named in memory of David Winton Bell, a member of the Brown University class of 1954. It is housed in the Albert and Vera List Art Building designed by internationally renowned architect Philip Johnson, that also includes classrooms, lecture halls, and extensive studio space. Free and open to the public, the Gallery is open Monday – Wednesday and Friday 11 am – 4 pm; Thursday 1 – 9 pm; and Saturday and Sunday 1 – 4 pm, and is located at 64 College Street in Providence, Rhode Island.

Toby Sisson, Revelation of the other world 2, 2019. Encaustic monotype on paper mounted on wood, 30” x 30”.