July 6, 2023

The Talented Professor Henry: On Enigmatic Artist Alicia Henry

Nashville Scene
By Laura Hutson Hunter

Fisk Univeristy professor’s first solo exhibition titled Alicia on view as part of the inaugural statewide Tennessee Triennial. 

Alicia Henry is relaxed inside the Carl Van Vechten Gallery. She is relaxed in most places, but especially here — the gallery, named after the photographer and Harlem Renaissance patron, is the beating heart of Fisk University, where Henry has been a professor since 1997. She scans the work on the walls through tortoiseshell glasses, moving with a gracefulness that seems almost slow-motion. She’s brought students through exhibitions in this space for decades, introducing them to artwork by masters like Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Alma Thomas. Today it’s her own art on display.

Alicia opened in March as part of the inaugural statewide Tennessee Triennial and it is monumental for several reasons — not the least of which is that it’s Henry’s first solo show at the university. Alicia contains multitudes — collages, paintings, ceramic sculptures and textile-based works, all spanning the length of time that Henry has been working at Fisk and living in Nashville. In 20 artworks, Alicia will give you a deep understanding of the artist’s outsized talent.

But the artist herself is a different story. And she might always remain a mystery.

Knowing Alicia Henry is like knowing two people. The show’s title hints at that duality — to the students who speak of her with reverence, she will always be Professor Henry, and calling her by her first name seems an almost improper display of familiarity. She is known for keeping quiet about her work, which she seldom names anything other than “Untitled” and always installs herself. Her silence remains even as she garners prestige and recognition — she’s been the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, a Joan Mitchell fellowship and a Ford Foundation fellowship. Even to those closest with her, Henry is as layered and enigmatic as the art she creates….

The Triennial’s consulting curator María Magdalena Campos-Pons has remarked…“There is something about Alicia Henry deconstructing the surface in tiny, tiny, tiny little gestures that one by one, by accumulation, construct a larger narrative,” says Campos-Pons, almost always referring to the artist by her full name. “The delicacy of that — the kind of soft, quiet, methodical, silent aspect of it — not only does that reflect her personality so well, but also talks to the history of making things in silence, which was the way of survival of Black culture. Part of the hidden power of her work resides in that modesty of gesture that, by consistency and commitment, becomes heroic.”

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