Floor Space Becomes Wall Space for Schomburg Center Junior Scholars Exhibition

By Lisa Herndon, Manager, Schomburg Communications and Publications
June 28, 2022
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
M. Scott Johnson, Junior Scholars students, and a parent of  students work on a collage on the floor of the Center’s American Negro Theatre. It is paintings created by students.

During the installation of the one-day exhibition, Invasion, M. Scott Johnson, students in the Juniors Scholars Program and parents added food items such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, uncooked grits, and red beans on and around the paintings.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

M. Scott Johnson, the visual arts instructor at the Schomburg Center’s Junior Scholars Program, had a challenge. How could he display the canvas painting of his students in the Center’s American Negro Theatre when there was already a current exhibition using the space?

He debated the question throughout the program’s Spring 2022 semester. The solution came to mind when he showed his triptych, The Metamorphosis of High John the Conqueror: Tribute to an Afrofuturist Deity at the 59th Venice Biennale in April. Inspired by what he saw in Italy, Johnson devised another approach. Display the paintings for their installation, Invasion, on the floor.

On Saturday, June 11, students presented Invasion as part of their class project culminating their 2021–22 academic year. It was part of the program’s 20th annual Youth Summit, Lift Every Voice.

The one-day exhibition opens with the words:

Invasion: Describes what seeks to deny my place in this world

Invasion: Describes what seeks to control my body and mind

Invasion: Describes what takes without giving

Invasion: Describes what is not satisfied 

“It’s really a response to what’s going on in the students’ lives today,” Johnson said. “Survival in the time of COVID, the concept of invasion from a medical standpoint, invasion of our bodies. The manufactured boogieman of Critical Race Theory and the war on history represents an invasion of our education. The relentless gentrification of the students' neighborhoods and the assault on memory are all subjects focused on in the exhibition.”

A group of people looking at the paintings and sculptures, which are placed on the floor.

All the paintings and sculptures are sitting on mylar. Leaves from collard greens, which served as the border, were also added in between pieces.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

The scholars incorporated foods that are part of Black culture such as black-eyed peas, grits, red beans, sweet potatoes, and okra into their works. The food is meant to activate the installation, fueled by the symbolic and cultural association of plants.

“The initiated know the significance of the food,” Johnson added. When incorporating this material into art we also observe its structure— the richness of the colors of the beans and peas, the shape of the leaves, how they lay down, and how they fit together. This alchemy of shapes and textures plays an integral part of the final work. In its final assembly, the students, influenced by the Haitian tradition of using cornmeal to illustrate powerful spiritual symbols, used grits to transform the installation into something sacred and profound. 

On left, a high school student is adjusting flowers on a sculpture. In the middle picture, a high school student is placing uncooked grits on mylar in the design of a scroll. On the right, a high school student is arranging black eyed peas

Left to right: Blanka (Blanche) Filipczak, Terri Diarra, and JahSheba Brendy Whitby use items such as flowers, uncooked grits, okra, and black-eyed peas as part of the design in art works featured in the one-day exhibition, Invasion.

Photos: Bob Gore and Lisa Herndon

Some of the Center’s collections that students drew inspiration from were photographs of Center founder Arturo Schomburg, current events, and lithographs of “Black Wall Street,” a once prosperous Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma that was destroyed while Black people were murdered in a race riot in 1921.

On left, a painting in blue, brown, and orange with the words Tulsa, May 21, 1921. On the right is a painting of a Black male head and shoulders. His head is bowed and showing parts of the brain, which are listed. A white hand is on his shoulder. The word, “Shift.” is listed in red.

On the left, The Invasion of Black Wall Street: Rev R. A. Whitaker witnessing the burning of Mt Zion, acrylic on canvas by Shirley Rose Tatem, 2022. On the right, Mastering the frontal lobe to battle White supremacy, acrylic on canvas by Terri Diarra, 2022.

Photos: Lisa Herndon

A statue of a female body made with flowers and leaves is on the left. On the right is a sculpture with three female Black children watching a program that has a white doll inside who is part of an advertisement.

On the left, Soul Blossoming in Spite of, a mixed media sculpture by Blanka (Blanche) Filipczak, 2022. On the right, Whose Little Girl Are You? acrylic on canvas and mixed media sculpture by Jared Collier, 2022.

Photos: Lisa Herndon

 A group photo of Center staff, teachers, and students in the 2021–22 class of the Junior Scholars Program on stage at the Schomburg Center.

The Junior Scholar Program held its 20th annual Youth Summit earlier this month. The summit, Lift Every Voice, showcased multimedia projects produced by our Junior Scholars from the 2021–22 Media, Music, Radio Journalism, Spoken-Word, and Theater classes.

Photo: Bob Gore

Juniors Scholars is a free Saturday academic enrichment program for students ages 11 to 18. Using the Schomburg Center’s collections, the program promotes historical literacy through college-style lectures and presentations, group discussions, and project-based learning. 

Lift Every Voice also showcased multimedia projects from the Media, Music, Radio Journalism, Spoken-Word, and Theater classes. Their work is available to view online.


If you would like to learn more about M. Scott Johnson and the Schomburg Center collections he used as inspirations for his sculptural triptych, The Metamorphosis of High John the Conqueror: Tribute to an Afrofuturist Deity, read “Tribute to an Afrofuturist Deity: Schomburg Center Artist/Educator M. Scott Johnson Exhibits at 59th Venice Biennale.”

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The Schomburg Junior Scholars program is made possible through the generous support of the New York Life Foundation, the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc., the New York City Council, and the New York State Legislature.