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Widening the frame: Pittsburgh artist's portrait series focused on Black people in Greensburg

Artist Gavin Benjamin was born in Guyana, but grew up largely in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. His big “refuge,” he said, was the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where he loved to look at the art on display.

“It was great,” he said. But for a Black boy in the early 1980s, there was one drawback: “I never saw anyone who looked like me on those walls. Very rarely.”

Gavin Benjamin at work
Courtesy of Gavin Benjamin
Gavin Benjamin at work

That experience was one of the things on Benjamin’s mind as he created the work that became “Gavin Benjamin: Break Down and Let It All Out,” an exhibit opening Sun., Oct. 16, at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

Benjamin’s collage-based work has been exhibited internationally (and on the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh), but his new show is all photography. It started with a residency at the Westmoreland, which is located in Greensburg, whose population is 92 percent white, 4 percent Black, and socially conservative.

“I wanted to do a story about people of color in the Westmoreland community,” he said. “It’s always in the back of my mind, how do folks of color survive in environments like this?”

With help from a local artist he hired, Benjamin recruited sitters at Black social spaces: churches, barbershops, wig shops. He photographed about 70, many in the museum's elegant, wood-paneled galleries. They include six images that reinterpret classic paintings in the museum’s collection.

Benjamin's portrait "Shirlene, Greensburg, PA"
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Benjamin's portrait "Shirlene, Greensburg, PA"

For instance, Thomas Hovenden’s well-populated 1882 Arthurian tableau “Death of Elaine” is reimagined as a contemporary scene (staged in the museum), with a young woman in bed attended only by a nurse and a man in a bird mask, representing Death. Clyde Singer’s “Easter Morning” (1948), with its behatted throngs viewed from above on the street, is reborn as Benjamin’s portrait of two women in Sunday finery standing at either end of a table laid with cakes.

“They’re smiling but you can still feel this sort of under-edge, because they’re together, but they’re not together,” said Benjamin.

All the portraits he shot are in the show, but in different formats. Fourteen are exhibited as full-scale prints in those same wood-paneled galleries, which have been redecorated to suggest the home of a fictional, affluent Black family that has occupied it for more than two centuries. The furnishings there include other artworks form the museum’s collection. The rest of the portraits are displayed on a special wallpaper Benjamin designed. There’s also a video documentary on the project.

“Break Down and Let It All Out” is curated by the museum’s chief curator, Jeremiah William McCarthy. The show’s title is taken from a song by Nina Simone, one of the artists Benjamin said he listened to most during the pandemic.

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Benjamin said he’d like to remove the barriers between the museum and people who might have been its neighbors for generations without ever setting foot inside.

“I really wanted to explore who the people were who are there, but like create some sort of conversation,” he said.

He added, “For kids to see, or someone to see, themselves in this space that is not usually so welcoming, that’s my goal from this.”

For more information on the exhibit, see here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: