Uncovering the buried histories of African Americans is the top priority of Work/Play – a St. Louis-based interdisciplinary studio dedicated to exploring historical and current representations and disparities of Black people in American culture. Created and curated by married duo Danielle and Kevin McCoy, “The Most Known Unknown” is a collection of works that implore audiences to question the history they might think they know.
“We gave you the shovels, we’ll let you start digging from there,” Kevin McCoy told viewers of the ECCE presentation linked to the exhibit. Work/play art aims to challenge preconceived notions of black history and culture. Kevin talks more about the lack of black perspective in mainstream American narrative. He and Danielle noticed how often black history begins with slavery as if it was the beginning of our history.
“As we all know, black people and indigenous people have really contributed a lot to society,” Kevin says. The problem arises when these contributions are buried in favor of adding to an already established and rich white history. Kevin goes on to explain how this story came about at the expense of black people. “The horrors and trauma that our people have had to endure have also been swept under the rug,” he says, “because some people really don’t want to tackle that. And that’s part of the problem.
Work/Play helps solve this problem by drawing attention to what has been swept under the rug for so long. The creators’ hope for viewers is that they will do more than just “reflect,” but rather do something about their own and others’ knowledge of black history. “We don’t want to dictate these stories to people,” Kevin says. “We just kind of want to drop an offer so they can do a little more research themselves. So what [by] by doing so, they will find more information. The exhibition aims to empower viewers to become their own artists. Kevin explains, “We basically try to get them to engage in the same practice as us.”
Danielle and Kevin wanted the opportunity to share this art collection with students, especially the African American student community here at ISU. “We know university students are very curious,” Kevin says. “[Students] think critically and [are] able to really propel some of these conversations among student bodies. And we were just thrilled to have our work in that setting.
The images presented prompted several students to question their perception of black culture. ISU student Taylor Parriott remembers the death of George Floyd as she looks at the footage. She is also interested in the gallery’s Black Messiah message – the exhibition has prompted her to become more interested in it. Another student, Hasani Cannon, appreciates the ability of art to confront those who need to be confronted. “I’m not a very confrontational person,” Cannon says. “So I like to speak vicariously through them… I’m glad there’s someone else who is able to express how they feel, which I think is the ultimate goal. .” Alternatively, Tyler Wise was struck by the dark subject matter these pieces covered. He points out that a specific mural of a bodyless lynching is “haunting and sobering” to him.
Work/Play: “The Most Famous Unknown” will be exhibited in the ISU Visual Arts Gallery from February 17and to March 10. Creators Danielle and Kevin McCoy also recorded a presentation on ECCE which can be viewed now via the ISU Speaker Series video on demand.