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Artist offers a history of Black Pittsburgh in clothes

Who was the first Black person in Pittsburgh?

That’s the question designer Tereneh Idia sought to answer in an artist residency with Contemporary Craft.

She found no definitive answer, but her months of copious research are apparent in “C3,” a new exhibit that explores the Black experience here through clothing. "C3" stands for "cloth, culture, community."

“This is really a kind of a love letter to Black Pittsburgh, and to our story and our experiences,” said Idia.

The figures of Queen Amina and the Flying African lead off the exhibit.
Tereneh Idia
The figures of Queen Amina and the Flying African lead off the exhibit.

These 12 lovingly adorned mannequins are on display in Contemporary Craft’s BNY Mellon Satellite Gallery in the Steel Plaza T station. But while Idia’s research took her to local battlefields, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, and Heinz History Center, these aren’t historical recreations, per se, but rather artistic interpretations of historical individuals or composite figures representative of different eras.

Queen Amina was a warrior in 16th-century Hausaland whom Idia links to Pittsburgh not only through sharing a homeland (in present-day Nigeria) with many African Americans, but also through her love of iron-working: She’s wearing a metal crown, chain mail, and equestrian culottes.

A display called “Virginia Regiment” -- a figure in an 18th-century style red military coat and an indigo turban -- recalls the role of Black fighters in the French and Indian War that led to the creation of the municipality of Pittsburgh. On the coat, Idia printed an image of the mythical Sankofa bird, an African symbol of “looking back to know where you come from, but also looking [forward] so you don't forget your gifts.”

One figure has an almost mythical resonance: the Flying African, with her white-lace wings, recalls the story of enslaved Africans whom legend has it escaped servitude in the Americas by soaring home. But others represent documented figures from the city’s past. One is Negro Suck, a Black woman enslaved here in the late 18th century, whom Idia included because, she said, the fact that there was slavery in this region is too little discussed. Another figure represents the abolitionist John Vashon, who owned barbershops and bathhouses and helped operate the Underground Railroad here starting in the 1830s. He also served in the Navy in the War of 1812 – so Idia complemented his natty, pinstriped vest, trousers and cravat with a compass and nautically themed tie pin.

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Another figure represents a specific person quite close to Idia: Thaddeus Mosley, Sr., her grandfather, who was a coal miner in the New Castle area.

“He died before I was born, unfortunately, as a result of having worked in mines since he was a teenager,” she said. “But I wanted to acknowledge that, and I thought he would represent the coal mining heritage of African Americans. That also gets, I think, overlooked a bit too much.”

She said Mosley was a union organizer who fought the private security forces who attempted to intimidate his family. The family also gardened, to avoid dependence on the company store. His gardening is represented by the stalks of wheat stowed in the bib pocket of his block-printed overalls. His archaic helmet and battered work boots were loaned by the history nonprofit Rivers of Steel; the carbide lamp mounted on the helmet is a keepsake of her own father, the artist Thad Mosley.

A figure in a block-printed T-shirt and jeans adorned with colorful fabric represents the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, a time that overlaps with the artist’s own childhood. “We don't do a good enough job of representing and celebrating our contribution to the Black Arts movement globally in Pittsburgh, because we really are a key point in the Black Arts movement,” she said. “I wanted to represent that by something that was fun for me, but like a summer arts festival, kind of Harambee Festival outfit that you could wear.”

Other figures in “C3” represent: Atiatonharónkwen, a Black man adopted by Mohawks in the 1700s; the Great Migration of Blacks northward from the South; Black World War II veterans; and Pittsburgh’s hip-hop legacy. The array concludes with Amina 3000, an Afrofuturistic update of Queen Amina in an imagined 30th-century Pittsburgh, renamed Diondega for its Seneca Indian past.

The exhibit – all in public-facing display windows, no gallery entry needed – will be readily available through April 16 to thousands of users of the Steel Plaza T station. Idia hopes it makes viewers curious to learn more.

“I feel like there's a there's a narrow narrative that's told over and over and over again about what Pittsburgh is about,” she said. “And we're so much more interesting and complex and complicated and multicultural. So this hopefully can just be a taste of what our stories are.”

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: