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At Beacon Gallery, Photographer Cheryl Miller Captures Eternal Communities

For a two-day show, the culmination of the gallery’s summer Artist-in-Residence program, Miller created a space to honor Black communities past, present, and future.

Review by Alisa Prince

A woman stands in front of a wall of black and white photographs.

Installation view, “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall,” Beacon Gallery, Boston. Held August 25 through August 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Beacon Gallery. Photo by Yujia Li.

“You’re my angel,” sang Lalah Hathaway as I walked down the steps into Beacon Gallery in Boston’s South End to visit “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall.” It felt familiar; it simply felt right to have incense burning and be surrounded by art and family photographs. I entered the gallery during one of three Studio Sundays held throughout the month of August, which welcomed the public into the space of Miller’s artist residency. Inside, large unframed prints hung on one side of the elongated gallery. On the other, framed photographs of different sizes hung above a desk and small table that displayed family portraits, books, vintage cameras, a bowl of dried flowers, memorabilia, and other curios.

While the show opened officially on August 25 and ran through August 27, the weekend event marked the culmination of photographer Cheryl Miller’s tenure as the gallery’s resident. The open studio sessions, however, allowed visitors opportunities to witness different stages of the show’s creation, speak with the artist, and even contribute to the installation of an altar near the entrance of the gallery.

Installation view, “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall,” Beacon Gallery, Boston. Held August 25 through August 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Beacon Gallery. Photo by Yujia Li.

“Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall” offers a mélange of Black diasporic experiences, and signals that they are all at once bound and distinct. The title of the exhibition abbreviates the African Proverb: “If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Activating these words right at the front of the gallery, light from Harrison Avenue shines through the windows onto a community altar for the ancestors. Flowers, rum, bananas, coconuts, red grapes, and candles comprise the altar; photographs with their edges burnt are suspended above these offerings. A prayer for Egun (the Yoruba word for ancestors) titled, “WITHOUT THE POWER OF THE PAST THERE IS NO FUTURE: Egun In Our Lives” is presented on a nearby chair. Visitors may pick up a copy of the document and are invited to contribute to the altar. At the exhibition opening, several guests affixed handwritten messages to the ancestors to the wall across from the installation.

Miller asks that visitors consider the ways in which Egun are intertwined with our religious ceremonies and rituals. The prayer document details the joint veneration for God and Egun, emphasizing the role of ancestors in our everyday lives. It outlines the Yoruba belief that there is life after death: one’s spirit may go on to care for their descendants and parts of one’s essence may even be passed on within their bloodline.

Installation view, “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall,” Beacon Gallery, Boston. Held August 25 through August 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Beacon Gallery. Photo by Yujia Li.

This intergenerational binding is conveyed in Wall of Promise. In this 20″ x 30″ photograph, seven adults sit on a stage in a New York City public school, the men in suits adorned with boutonnières on the left and the women in dresses and pearls on the right, before a large block of text—the “Wall of Promise”—behind them. The text, written in first person, pledges that one can study and become anything that they want to be, listing careers from chancellor, doctor, engineer, to lawyer, mathematician, radiologist, and social worker. A lone little boy stands tall downstage with a large microphone in hand, seemingly making a declaration to the audience. The photograph signals the dedication of Black elders to encouraging and supporting Black futures. This theme is central to photographs created by Miller, who affirms that “the history of hundreds of years of enslavement, Jim Crow, and existing racist systems, [that] have not thwarted our efforts to flourish magnificently.”

The interdisciplinarity of Miller’s life’s work enriches her capacity to portray the human experience. The self-taught photographer served as a City and Regional Planner in New York City, taking on lead roles in housing development and neighborhood revitalization projects. She is driven to examine economic, social, and political conditions and to create pathways forward. Her ethos recognizes the role of history and the ancestral actors that propel us there. Within her own family, Miller is the archivist, the keeper of family photographs, records, and stories.

Installation view, “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall,” Beacon Gallery, Boston. Held August 25 through August 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Beacon Gallery. Photo by Yujia Li.

Miller’s photographic work reflects an astute ability to interpret everyday life and communicate its persistent beauty to viewers. Her approach to image making is to photograph what is there. She employs mainly natural light and composes such that the existing highlights and shadows become transfigured. The resultant photographs showcase a visual simplicity. The 30″ x 45″ gelatin silver print Nina and The Twins encapsulates this quality in an intimate portrait of tranquility. Feminine and comfortable, Nina dons a loose-fitting sheer dress, arms at her side, with thick waves of hair cascading down her neck. She is backlit, standing before a window that illuminates her dress and reveals the delicate silhouette of her pregnant figure. The twins are only discernible as the curved shadow of their mother’s belly through the thin veil of her dress. Nina’s head tilts just slightly toward the photographer while her gaze travels beyond the frame. Our awareness of the inevitable passing of time—and the twins’s arrival—only underscores the weight of Nina’s stillness in this moment. Miller’s stunning capture expresses the patience of a mother nearing full term.

Double Dutch Bunch depicts a group of children playing on the sidewalk next to a house. In the center, a young girl hops quickly between double dutch ropes swung by girls of similar age on each end—her small blurred feet attesting to her rapid speed. The jumping girl sports an “AIR BART” T-shirt, humorously alluding to the Air Jordan shoe line that represents Michael Jordan’s own notorious jump game. Much like coming of age and finding one’s way within a changing city, keeping pace with two oscillating ropes requires one to navigate the highs and lows synchronously. One must be adroit. A young boy watches the girls play, twisting his head to look over his shoulder and clasping his hands as if to shrink himself. At first glance, his gestures appear bashful, but the blur of the rope swinging above his head reminds us of the whip and smack of jump ropes through the air and across the concrete. He’s trying not to get lashed by the ropes while carefully observing the girls play, and perhaps, contemplating his own ability to keep pace.

Installation view, “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall,” Beacon Gallery, Boston. Held August 25 through August 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Beacon Gallery. Photo by Yujia Li.

Until her recent relocation to the Greater Boston Area, Miller was a lifelong New Yorker, finding home in Jamaica Queens. Miller’s photographs are housed in the permanent collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York and her work has been published in numerous influential books on Black visual culture. Miller is currently at work on a memoir, If We Stand Tall… Recollections of Spirits Past that she describes as a study of all communities, foregrounding her home of Jamaica, New York. The book project “captures the very essence of life, in a celebration of our ancestors, community and our connection to all others.”

Installation view, “Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall,” Beacon Gallery, Boston. Held August 25 through August 27, 2023. Photo courtesy of Beacon Gallery. Photo by Yujia Li.

On the evening of August 8, 2023, Miller gathered with fellow photographers Marilyn Nance and OJ Slaughter to discuss their work in a Photography Roundtable hosted by Beacon Gallery at Boston University’s School of Visual Arts. Each panelist is a multidisciplinary producer: Slaughter is a dedicated activist and music enthusiast who describes their work as documenting “the history of right now,” and Nance, a longtime friend of Miller, is a scholar of folklore; her photography charts cultural histories of the African Diaspora and emphasizes the exigency of organizing and protecting personal archives. Dr. Jovanna Jones, Assistant Professor of African American Literature and Culture at Boston College, brilliantly moderated the discussion with space for attendees to share what they saw in select images from each photographer. Open to the public, the audience included both scholars and creators from Boston University and esteemed artists Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Archy LaSalle, and C. Rose Smith, among others.

“I’m in every photo. You don’t see me, but I’m there,” Miller shared. She is connected with the people and places that she photographs, vesting the photographer and her subject matter with a reciprocal influence on one another. In turn, Miller’s photographs accentuate the Yoruba belief that one’s Ori (their personal essence) never ceases to exist. The magnitude of this notion is powerful: photographing communities from an insider position, she skillfully renders herself invisible yet present within and through the visual. Miller’s own essence is eternalized.

“Cheryl Miller: If We Stand Tall” was held at Beacon Gallery from August 25-August 27, 2023, culminating the gallery’s Artist-In-Residence for the Summer 2023 program. 

A black and white drawing of Alisa V. Prince smiling at the viewer. She sports a parted afro and circular earrings.

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