Combustible Art

Last summer, Jacksonville artist Zenslayfu, also known as Kandice Knecole Clark, conceived Black Opal to highlight the works of artists of color on the rise. This year, the multimedia event returns to build bridges and break down barriers between communities. Joining Zenslayfu this time around is Phase Eight Theater Company, with a preview of its forthcoming production Ruined, by multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Lynn Nottage.

Clark and Phase Eight founder and artistic director JaMario Stills discussed the show with Folio Weekly. They make a most complementary team, with Clark representing the visual arts and Stills speaking for performance. Clark has built an extensive grassroots network that cuts across Jacksonville’s often insular neighborhoods; Stills navigates the institutional world with ease.

Black Opal is a meeting of these worlds, all under the sign of “artists of color.” The term is vague enough—and combustible enough—to warrant an official definition on Zenslayfu’s site. An ‘artist of color’ is “a person whose skin tone has served as a defining characteristic at one point or another in their life and who uses a creative skillset to express their thoughts, ideals, emotions and lived experiences.”

“’Artist of color’ doesn’t just mean ‘black artist,’” says Clark. “A lot of communities have been defined by the color of their skin. We want to bring them all to the table.”

The first edition of Black Opal, featuring 15 emerging visual artists of color, was held at the 5 & Dime Theater Company in Downtown Jacksonville. It was so successful, Clark sensed immediately that she’d have to scout a bigger venue for the follow-up. This second edition is staged inside the broadcasting facilities of WJCT, also home to the offices of Stills and Phase Eight.

“I missed the first edition of Black Opal,” admits Stills. “I only heard about it afterward, but I became a fan immediately. I reached out to Kandice earlier in the year because I felt the project we were starting to work on was complementary to the Black Opal vision.”

That project was Phase Eight’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined. Written by New York-based playwright Lynn Nottage, Ruined sketches the exploitation and abuse of women in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Phase Eight’s Ruined officially premieres on Aug. 3, but cast and crew will tease a scene at Black Opal.

It’s not just about promoting the new production, however. Stills sees Black Opal as a means of cross-pollinating Jacksonville’s art scene. He wants the visual and dramatic arts to mingle.

“We thought, in addition to presenting some great art, here was an opportunity to bring our respective audiences together,” he says. “The mission is really two-fold: to present art and to develop audiences. We’re really excited about it.”

The entire event is a site-specific installation. Paintings, photography and installations serve as landmarks along a walking circuit that wends its way through WJCT’s main hall and sound stage, where the performances unfold. Participating artists among the class of 2018 are mostly fresh faces, including Ari Charis, Cephas Bradley and M. Will.

“Black Opal is really about emerging artists,” says Clark. “Many of last year’s participants have moved on up. This year, we’re showcasing a new group.”

Black Opal’s theme “Le Congo” is a nod, of course, to Ruined. It also speaks to the current pop-culture moment, a moment in which American audiences are exploring their African roots. In addition to the exhibition and performance, Black Opal features music by AfroLatinx DJ GeeXella, a street-style market with refugee vendors and a fashion show highlighting global fusion.

“We want to represent not just African heritage,” notes Stills, “but also the ways in which urban America has adapted those ideas, fused and repurposed them to be as dope as we are.”