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Go home again

To Belong opens a dialogue around black placemaking

To Belong features layered images of North Tulsa, exploring the space-reclaiming potency of home.

Eyakem Gulilat

Eyakem Gulilat kept seeing them all over North Tulsa when he started making photos there in 2012: steps that once led up to a house but now led nowhere, the house having been abandoned, demolished, visibly erased but still present in memory or hope through the invitation of those steps.  

Gulilat, a Norman-based photographer, is a native of Ethiopia who has lived in the U.S. since 1996. His work looks with a curious, serious eye at the surreal reality of cross-cultural co-existence, particularly in the landscape of Oklahoma. 

That 2012 project, Site Unseen, raised questions Gulilat expands on in a multidimensional exhibit called To Belong, which opens July 5 at the Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education. 

Where is the home that ought to be at the top of those stairs? And what does “home” mean to a community that has been continuously displaced, whether through outright massacre in 1921 or gentrification in 2019? 

Gulilat described his work in To Belong as merely the background theme for a community conversation about the space-reclaiming potency of home.  

First, he layered images of North Tulsa—from 1920s Greenwood through his own photos taken very recently—into a single landscape. “My process of using this approach is to collapse all of the narratives that happened into a single image,” he said. “Some of the images depict highway bridges, railroads, Sand Pipe Hill, and historic maps. These are all clues to the ways spaces are developed, and with a deeper look, we become aware of how this development involves markers of delineation.”

Within his layered landscape of displacement, Gulilat then built a prototype of a tiny house that he and exhibit curator Christina Beatty (along with a curatorial team including Liz Blood and Marjorie Bontemps) invited people who live in North Tulsa to co-create.

“The whole idea was to recreate the homes that once existed in those spaces,” he said. “The community is interpreting the term ‘home’ with their own photographs, which will make up the shingles and siding of the house. 

I wanted the community to help me create this idea of home in a space that is now overtly commercialized through the arts.”

For Beatty, a first-time curator but longtime community arts advocate working here within the Oklahoma Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship (a project of the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition), the exhibit is an opportunity for a dialogue to happen around what she called “a lived landscape.”

“This is about historical context, but more so about what’s happening right now,” she said. “North Tulsa is a place that many people call home. What’s their daily experience of that? I’m interested in the ways people carve out and create spaces for themselves regardless of the circumstances they’ve been handed, how they express that agency over the space they do have.”    

“This is an opportunity for people who live in North Tulsa to sit at the table,” Gulilat explained. “People in that community already know what it means ‘to belong.’ We wanted to see that definition extend to a space that’s so far away, in the Arts District, though you can literally throw a rock from North Tulsa into it.”

That “far away” space was once known as Black Wall Street, and today its distance is more than physical. “From North Tulsa to the Arts District is a short road on the map, but a very long road psychologically,” Beatty said.

Elizabeth Henley, who runs Black Moon, an arts collective based in North Tulsa, helped organize the community arm of the exhibit. “People were really excited to participate,” she said. “The responses were very creative and abstract. Negative connotations are so easily attached to North Tulsa by residents outside the community. It’s a powerful thing to see our community capture images that are positive and cherished reflections.”

Beatty and Gulilat, who both work for the Oklahoma Arts Council, see To Belong as an introduction to what they hope will be an ongoing conversation around the experiences it explores. 

“Tulsa art organizations like to bring in people from North Tulsa or other outlying communities to their establishments,” Henley said. “I would love to see art spaces and galleries established and placed inside North Tulsa. Like grocery stores or retail outlets, art organizations need to have a physical presence within a community to best impact it and work within it to inspire positive change.”

The team invites members of the black community in North Tulsa to continue submitting photographs for inclusion in the exhibit even after the opening, through the North Tulsa Photography Project Facebook group or to northtulsaphoto@gmail.com.

“North Tulsa is full of hope, dreams, and desire, just like any society,” Gulilat said. “I want to share their desire.” 

To Belong
Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education
124 E. Mathew B. Brady St.
Opens July 5

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