Home > Arts/Culture/Entertainment > ‘Don’t Act Like You Forgot:’ Shonna Pryor’s ‘Fiscal Frontiers’

‘Don’t Act Like You Forgot:’ Shonna Pryor’s ‘Fiscal Frontiers’

A portal can be a gate, a door, a website. A pathway is what exists beyond the gate, the door, the webpage. Portals are changed by the people who once occupied their ether, just as pathways are shaped by all those who’ve traveled their twists and turns. 

This is good, this is how futures begin.

In Shonna Pryor’s “Of Portals and Pathways II: Fiscal Frontiers,” at the Evanston Art Center, the dinner table functions as art object, portal, and path. Reclaimed dining table legs form the base of each piece in the artist’s Tribe of Mansa Musa series. Named after the 14th-century emperor of the Mali Empire, each of the seven works in the series is suspended from the ceiling and gently sways as visitors walk through their field of installation. Salvaged tablecloths, brightly colored and delicately embroidered, sit atop the table legs and intertwine with laser-printed canvas featuring 1872 ledger records from the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Colloquially known as the Freedman’s Bank, the company was chartered through federal legislation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Freedman’s Bank catered to America’s newly freed population of Black Americans, helping to provide a fiscal infrastructure to communities previously unrecognized by the country’s banking institutions. Though the bank eventually fell victim to Congress’s lack of oversight, the volatility of the country’s post-Civil War economy, and the rising tide of white supremacist terror that accompanied the civil and political gains of Black Americans during the Reconstruction Era, the total amount invested in all branches would, in today’s numbers, ranges in the billions.

In Shonna Pryor’s “Of Portals and Pathways II: Fiscal Frontiers,” at the Evanston Art Center, the dinner table functions as art object, portal, and path.
Courtesy the artist

The Freedman ledgers appear throughout “Fiscal Frontiers.” Viewers encounter the names of account holders at the bank upon entering the exhibition in the immersive WallPAPER of Respect. In WallPAPER, images of names and family details extend from the gallery’s floor to its ceiling. Upon these facsimiles of the ledgers, Pryor has sketched vibrant flowers in varying shapes and sizes as a way to honor the folks who invested in generations yet to come. The motif of the financial document—the evidence of numbers, the undeniable weight of one’s funds—is no coincidence. Pryor is an artist who is acutely aware of how money inscribes and legitimizes one’s citizenship, one’s very personhood, under racial capitalism. The lost Black wealth of the Freedman’s Bank functions, then, as Pryor’s raw material, the launch pad by which “Fiscal Frontiers” honors untold histories and imagines unknown futures. 

During Pryor’s artist talk, which accompanied the exhibition’s opening, she mentioned the “ports” fashioned onto each of the tablecloths in the Mansa Musa series. Pryor explained that the ports serve to center the alterity of each object and its hidden histories and lives. Her use of Afrofuturist iconography further challenges the viewer’s relationship to each piece. For Pryor, a tablecloth is never simply fabric. When you sit at a table (or have a seat at the table), you enter another world. You join a family, you make a memory, you start the day. The table and the tablecloth are sites of stories, secrets, and love. These are objects that do not just contain history but also possess the potential for a future. What will happen next?

For Pryor, the table and the tablecloth are sites of stories, secrets, and love.
Courtesy the artist

History is palpable throughout “Fiscal Frontiers.” It can be felt within the plush tactility of each tablecloth’s well-worn embroidery and in the creamy reams of blank paper spilling out from an adding machine. Unlike Pryor’s frames, tablecloths, and tables—objects that digress, ramble, and explore with idiosyncratic style—the adding machine forces a return from the realm of affect. Numbers have weight, they make history concrete. From the money in your wallet to the food on your table, numbers make the material of everyday life manifest. Such, then, is the poignancy of the blank paper. As Pryor explained, the white skein signifies the debt of reparations. This is a debt not easily paid, for how can the immaterial and spiritual tolls of atrocities be tallied? How can a world shaped through violence be changed? Pryor would assert that we look first to the material of the everyday, the stuff of the mundane, the weight of the dollars in our pockets. 

While the first installment of Pryor’s “Portals and Pathways” also premiered during Black History Month last year (a conscious choice of Pryor’s for both exhibitions) at Material Exhibitions on West Belmont, Evanston proves a meaningful site from which to stage the series’s second installment. In November 2019, Evanston became the only city in America to legislate reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans, through Resolution 126-R-19. According to the city’s website, the resolution committed the first $10 million the city made through the Municipal Cannabis Retailers’ Occupation Tax to fund housing and economic development programs for Black Evanston residents.

In “Fiscal Frontiers” Pryor is both a cartographer and storyteller of the object, of the things touched and that touch you in return. Speaking from her experience as a Black woman, Pryor uses money, food, and things as the mile markers of life under capitalism to map what it means to be read as “other” by society. Yet she also gives each object, each artifact, agency. There’s power in telling your story, power in the things you collect and give to those yet to come. There is power in community, power in subaltern spaces, power in frames and around tables reclaimed. Cycles, cyclical returns, and departures have ways of appearing throughout Pryor’s corpus. It seems almost fated that the artist shares her surname with one of the Freedman’s Bank account holders featured in the show. There’s a certain inevitability to Pryor’s work, for a philosopher of the everyday knows how to make art that touches you. “Fiscal Frontiers” is an exhilarating reminder of art’s power to speak in the realm of the tangible, the material, the stuff that touches back. 

“Of Portals and Pathways II: Fiscal Frontiers”
Through 3/26: Mon-Thu 9 AM-6 PM, Fri 9 AM-5 PM, Sat-Sun 9 AM-4 PM Evanston Art Center, 1717 Central, Evanston, evanstonartcenter.org/exhibitions

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