Sonder, a Sequel: A Short History of and Hopeful Future for the Black Biennial

Angelina Rodgers
BFA PT 2025

Photographs from the opening of Sonder, taken by the author on April 18, 2024.

The Black Biennial was born in 2022, curated by Rey Londres (BFA PH 22) and Melaine Ferdinand-King (Brown PhD Africana Studies 24). The abundant display of work by more than 80 Black artists from the RISD and Providence community was the result of two-plus years of collaborative ideation, pandemic-postponing, rigorous research, curation, and design. In their exhibition catalog, Londres and Ferdinand-King assert the original and prevailing intent of the Black Biennial: to highlight Black artists, designers, and creative practitioners in a largely surveyed, predominantly White art and design institution. They write that the show, titled New Beginnings, “was conceptualized as both a cultural hub and a form of redress in response to systemic issues of anti-Blackness in the art world,” and also addresses “Rhode Island’s history of colonialism and contemporary racial inequity in New England cultural institutions.” Furthermore, they emphasize the large volume of conversations between Black students, organizations, and initiatives that influenced their creation of the Black Biennial.

The second Black Biennial opened on April 18, 2024, co-curated by two of my hardworking peers, Amadi Williams (BFA PT 25) and Isaiah “Prophet” Raines (BFA SC 25). They benefited from the insights of Londres and Ferdinand-King, working to continue the vision of the show in new circumstances. They pulled off a comparable feat with just 13% of the original show’s budget. One significant result of the largely reduced funding was that they could not produce another 200-page catalogue with their writing, reflections on the show’s opening, images, and an index of the artists’ work. v.1 is proud to make space for the Black Biennial in our Spring issue—to honor the ambitions and efforts of the curators and their team.

Williams and Raines continue the tradition of the Black Biennial with a new name and theme: Sonder. When I met with Williams and Raines in the final stages of installation, we spoke about this profound feeling: “sonder” is the realization that everyone has a distinct and complex life of their own, despite the ignorance of the seer. On the @blackbiennial Instagram, they point out that “each of us is at once a hero, a supporting cast member, and an extra in overlapping realities.” Raines commented on how prevalent the idea of being the “main character” is in everyday life, and how everyone is their own main character. He witnesses the ego that pervades College Hill, which one of his friends called “the castle on the hill in the clouds,” and this pushes him to highlight the perspectives of people living outside it. In our conversation, he emphasized the importance of bringing these perspectives together into one space, especially a RISD space, where his people often feel they don’t belong.

The call for work for Sonder was a collaborative effort between the past and current curators and expanded the Black Biennial’s community-based efforts. Raines, in particular, highlighted the importance of local engagement, understanding, and exposure. He asserted that College Hill is not a welcoming place for non-students and that Providence has become a playground for the college demographic. He informed his community members about the Black Biennial through word of mouth at shows and parties, and also through a short but prolific period of poster runs by himself, Ferdinand-King, and Laila Cribbs (BFA FAV 25). In urging community members to submit their work, Raines made sure they understood his level of involvement and intentions so that the idea of a RISD exhibition was not a deterrent to getting involved. With the networks of all four past and current curators and the precedent of New Beginnings, the call for work cast a wide net over the Providence community and the work in Sonder demonstrates that reach. 

Williams and Raines also described their design process for Sonder’s identity. They were interested in gradients and TV static. This graphic fuzziness nods to the idea of “sonder”—that there are as many ontologies as there are people, and that our perceptions of others are only as clear as we work for them to be. These ideas play on the original Black Biennial logo and typeface, designed by Zoë Pulley (MFA GD 23) and Jada Akoto (BFA GD 22), which feature glitches, reversals, and diagonal cuts. All of these elements suggest a changed reality, either fractured or blurred. New Beginnings sliced through the RISD Museum’s quiet, white gallery space with its glitching typeface. And with that open cut healing over, we are now prompted to contemplate Black perspectives through a fuzzy, staticky lens interpreting the idea of “sonder.” Marin Griffith (BFA PT 24) designed Sonder’s poster (see @blackbiennial on Instagram), displaying the show in a striking new color and light.

Williams, Raines, and I also discussed the concept of a “biennial.” The word “biennial” (as in, the Whitney Biennial, “the longest-running survey of American art,” occurring every two years) conjures feelings of compulsive, old White tradition, and cyclical, coveted acclaim. Generally, any biennial will seek to outdo the one before. The Black Biennial fundamentally reforms this recurring thirst for relevance, fueled instead to showcase the complex Black experience, both specific and shared, which has not been given the attention it deserves, particularly at RISD.

Sonder affirms the namesake “biennial” in Black Biennial, demonstrating the impact of the original mission to continue. Yet, it also necessitates change. Williams noted that in the off years, artists’ practices change drastically, with new education, technology, and connections. Many folks have shown in both Black Biennials, evolving their work along the way. Sonder reflects a delicate time in the Black Biennial’s trajectory, where the show is still new and explosive, but also establishes a young tradition that could grow in demand and require more selective curation in the future.

Many will note a difference in the volume of work between the 2022 and 2024 shows. Despite growing recognition, the show includes fewer works this time around. New Beginnings was presented in a Salon format, stacking works on the wall and filling the floorspace with mannequins and sculptures. This format was engaging and offered a historical nod to the concept of the Salon, where under-represented or overly criticized work from people outside of the elite class could be exhibited equally and generously. Williams and Raines explained some of their challenges in deciding how to show as much work as possible while also giving pieces room to breathe, which could allow for slower contemplation of individual works and purposeful association between adjacent works. This balance of attention to artists’ intentions and a vast representation of many mediums manifested in more intentional displays. For example, in Dori Walker’s “in_living_memory: hamilton heights,” there are headphones with the monitor, allowing and inviting a deeper and more personal contemplation of the work. Interaction is also present in Jenna Jean’s “Never Just,” a long braided wig on a mannequin head where the viewer can manipulate the hair with bobby pins. Interactive elements enable the work to be intimately seen, heard, and felt. Naturally, crowded displays and large pieces provoke feelings of reverence and visual intensity, but Williams emphasized that she believes small pieces can have big impacts in different ways. What can we learn by stopping, looking closer, and imagining realities beyond our own? I felt Williams’ sentiment particularly shone through in Ireoluwatoni Asojo’s “Hidden In Plain Sight,” a small-scale copperplate engraving that awards the viewer’s close-looking by subtly looking back.

Njari Anderson (BRDD SC + Modern Culture and Media 24), wrote memorably about the New Beginnings opening for v.1’s Spring 2022 edition (an essay later reprinted in the Black Biennial catalogue):

To be both the center of the universe, the root of everything, but also proud glitches in White space. I moved through the crowd like a child who didn’t know hurt. But, amidst new beginnings, people, chatter, live music, and the occasional “Fuck, this Jerk Chicken is good,” what I encountered most was the word “need.” This quickly brought me back to Earth. At this Black center, there was a somber reminder of the immense labor it took to bring the Black Biennial to life. Years of labor, visible and invisible hands alike advocating for Black “need,” the needs who’ve come before We and for who’ll come after.

I can attest to the vibrancy of the first biennial’s opening. There was live music, great food, rhythm, presence, and a refreshing sense of community coming out of our COVID isolation. This vibrancy was revived for Sonder’s opening, full of people showing up and out, supporting each other’s work, and connecting through food, music, and art. Even with a fraction of the original budget, the Black Biennial team facilitated a memorable event to showcase, for the second time, the artists, their work, and the significant efforts that went into exhibiting it. The impact and futurity of the Black Biennial were palpable.

However, considering specifically Anderson’s nod to those “who’ll come after,” I became increasingly curious about the systems that should make student curation accessible and enduring. I started with these questions: Who, at RISD, will be committed to understanding the Black Biennial’s growing history and work to continue it? How will the next set of curators secure more funding for installation materials, documentation, self-produced publications, food, drinks, music, and labor? While start-ups are great opportunities to learn and be resourceful, might there be more dedicated institutional resources set in place to make recurring student-run shows go up without such a strain? With these questions in mind, I was led to a broader one: How can future recurring student shows at RISD procure consistent funding for documentation, publications, and opening ceremonies; especially shows dedicated to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ representation?

I reached out to the Director of Campus Exhibitions, Mark Moscone, and the Vice President of Social Equity and Inclusion at RISD, David T. Carreon Bradley, with these questions and more. From their answers, I gathered that many aspects of the Black Biennial—like size, scope, faculty advising, funding, and printed publication—lack precedents in the history of student shows at RISD. Bradley shared that New Beginnings “was mostly carried out through volunteer work or work above and beyond what RISD staff were already tasked with… Also, the funding for the initiative in 2022 came from found sources such as cost-savings in the Social Equity & Inclusion budget as well as generous contributions from offices and departments across the institution.” Moscone informed me that student shows have never required appointed faculty advisors before the Black Biennial. He noted that “there have been some instances where students reach out to faculty they are familiar with for some advice, but that's not normally done. Having a faculty member as point person seems more important with a show like the Black Biennial, though, so this is something that will need to be figured out before the next biennial.” Next, to my question about how future curators will be chosen, Moscone answered that the process will function “like other shows at Gelman, with an open call for proposals for the Black Biennial. A committee could be assembled to review proposals and select the strongest one to move forward with.” In this process, I foresee that faculty members committed to the success of the Black Biennial can and will volunteer to be official advisors.

Bradley stated that they believe “one of the next steps for ensuring the success of the Black Biennial is to have students, faculty, staff, and alums come together to have the conversation now so that it is clear what is possible and sustainable for the future.” They affirmed that these dialogues have already begun and that they are engaging in them. With active, ongoing work being done to resolve uncertainties about the future of the Black Biennial, I have hope that my questions will not remain unanswered until the next show in 2026. I acknowledge the pressure associated with producing the second-ever iteration of the Black Biennial—having large shoes to fill and a much tighter budget. So then, I hope future Black students at RISD and in Providence can begin to unpack how much there is to value and learn from Sonder, as both its own exhibition and as a model for ambitious student initiatives like it.

Angelina Rodgers needs a few minutes.