Echoes - Bex Olesek for the Young Art Writers Project

This piece was originally published in Soft Time, a zine anthology of art reviews collected by Mauro Barreto for his Art Since 1940 course at Lipscomb University

Published March 27th 2024
By Bex Olesek

Installation view of Alicia Courtesy of the writer

Alicia, on view at Fisk University’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery, is a retrospective of artist and Fisk University professor Alicia Henry’s 40-year career. The exhibition celebrates Henry as an educator who has guided generations of artists and been a leading voice in multimedia installation, through which she has probed the themes of identity, love and loss. Using simple materials—cotton, thread, wood, and leather—Alicia shows the untethered connection between the African Diaspora and modern understandings of self within the world at large and reminds us that history never leaves us.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is immediately confronted by what feels like hundreds of haunting masks. Each is made of acrylic, dyed leather, thread, and yarn. The array of masks in Analogous III resembles traditional African masks used in ceremony and celebration, and yet there is a ghostly feature to their expressions. Each face asks to be looked into and remembered. Whether that memory is our own or that of someone else is left up to the viewer, with little description.

Untitled, a large-scale collage-like painting of a face covered by layers of mask-shaped pieces of paper, reminds the viewer that reality is colored by the past. Though still visible, the original portrait is obscured by layer after layer of colored paper. Each one acts as a mask, worn all at the same time. Each one acts as a reminder of something that changed us and changed the way we appear within the world. We are all collections of our experiences, and for many of us those experiences are affected by what happened to those who came before us.

Art of the African Diaspora considers the toll and contemporary consequences of the forced migration of Africans as part of the Transatlantic slave trade from 1526 to 1867, which resulted in the forced dissemination of culture, ideas, and the physical bodies of so many. Across her work, Henry is a careful interpreter of the impact and influence that tragedy has on Black Americans today.

Installation view of Alicia, Courtesy of the writer printed through risograph for the Soft Time anthology

At Fisk University, a historically Black college, these themes of Henry’s are brought under an even brighter light. Fisk is the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville and a beacon of progress and change. As Henry’s work hangs within its galleries, it is undeniable that it was those who came before her that paved the way for such an impactful career. The poet Maya Angelou wrote, “The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” History whispers throughout Henry’s work and sources her individuality, inspiration, and strength.

Bex Olesek is a multidisciplinary arts professional whose practice spans illustration, installation, and curation. She has had the opportunity to collaborate with artists across Nashville as director of Open Gallery and gallery installation lead for Dolly Parton and the Makers: My Life in Rhinestones. She is in her senior year of her BFA in Studio Art at Lipscomb University. Learn more at