The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery is presenting a solo exhibition by longtime ceramic artist Donna Ray.
Ray is one of four artists participating in the 2023 MAAHMG artist-in-residency program. The program is tailored specifically for local Black artists interested in creating new works exploring Black history, art and culture. Artists were allotted $12,000 each to support the project of their choice.
“When I was invited to do this residency, my heart just fell out,” said Ray. “To be in an African American museum is just outstanding.”
Ray, who specializes in ceramic sculpture, says she wanted to use this exhibition to uplift women throughout history. Ray says her research looked at the roles women play in gender equality, land ownership, and education in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
“I'm inspired mostly by the stories of women and the artists in the past that have contributed to society. The stories of my mom, my grandmother, and other women that I've read about in the past” said Ray. “Me being a woman and knowing that a lot of women out there before me and after me, are still going through the same struggles of living, I wanted to make sure that when I did my show that it was gonna be about the things that I felt about being a woman.”
Ray says it was exciting for her to use clay to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional works that amplify gender inequity – an issue that continues to disproportionately affect women.
Ray’s exhibition opens with three deities that Ray says represent Africa, America, and Asia. Upon arrival, the first deity you see is what Ray calls a Native American Goddess.
“I'm an artist in the state of Minnesota. So appropriately, that's why she's the first person to greet everybody.”
Ray says her use of deities is a symbolic approach to shift the way we view women and their significance. She says she views all women as goddesses.
Next up is a porcelain clay “quiz” puzzle that Ray created to engage visitors with the textures and values of her work. She says puzzles have always represented solving difficult problems for her. She says the concept of puzzles reflects her experience as a woman, having to juggle various hats and remain afloat against all obstacles.
“That's the reason why I decided to put my puzzle in there,” said Ray. “I designed it to have some kind of community engagement with the audience because that's what’s most important to me. I’m into art leadership and want people to be able to read and know my work.”
The exhibition continues with excerpts of various projects Ray has worked on over the years.
The “Spoon Theory” series represents both the physical and mental load required to complete tasks. 10 large clay spoons, each crafted with a unique design, symbolize the nurturing roles that women fill in society.
“Women have a lot of tasks,” said Ray. “We are moms. We take care of our families. We take care of bills… We do everything extraordinary. And more than most people think we do. So we get all the spoons.”
Visitors to the exhibition will also find masks with holes that resemble piggy banks, in tribute to the wealth of women, earned despite economic barriers. Baskets pay tribute to the significant role women play in agriculture and farming, as well as their connection to nature. The exhibit concludes with a marketplace, where people can buy rattles, salt cellars, vases, bowls, and more.
Ultimately, Ray says this exhibit is not only about the significance of women, but also their resilience. Ray says being a 62-year-old, visually impaired woman has meant being treated as “less than” on a regular basis. She says if she would’ve let this stop her, she wouldn’t be who she is today.
“You're supposed to be educating and motivating other artists to create and to tell our stories, because the way things are–if they keep editing the books and taking out a lot of information, and not telling everything like it is–we need to figure out another way to educate others and our youth. And to me, it's about life through art via community engagement. So it feels really good to be at this stage in my life now, where I can educate and motivate and encourage, write, and do art.”
Ray’s exhibition, “Women’s Equity and Gender Fluidity (3A’s) Education, Finance and Real Estate” runs through February 3 at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis.