In ‘Enigma,’ reactions to racism make for a vibrant, sobering show

Chanel Thervil’s “Enigma: Reactions to Racism” is up through May 3 at Urbano Project.
Chanel Thervil’s “Enigma: Reactions to Racism” is up through May 3 at Urbano Project.Photography by Faizal Westcott courtesy of Urbano Project

Fraught conversations about racism so easily take on an “us versus them” tone, divvying groups into victims and oppressors. The latter may in turn express feelings of victimization for being called out. So often, we just don’t talk.

Painter Chanel Thervil’s “Enigma: Reactions to Racism” at Urbano Project keeps the dialogue within the community of color, and paradoxically, that may make the topic more accessible to white people. She interviewed millennials about their experiences of racism. Her mixed-media installations orbit around their portraits.

The large, vivid, cutout paintings pop off the wall, real scarves wrapped round their heads, or hair thick with impasto. The consternation on their faces reflects the wounds and conflicts they live with.


Several of the works include interactive audio: Touch the portrait, and listen to the subject’s voice, frank and personal. That, and the works’ tactility, connects viewers intimately to Thervil’s subjects.

Thervil asked Priscilla about “a confusing racism moment.” Priscilla’s eyes make candid contact with the viewer. At her workplace, staffed largely by white people, nobody talked much about police shooting people of color, she recounts, although it was pertinent to the population the agency served.

When finally a meeting was held, Priscilla’s boss buttonholed her, saying, “I wanted to know your thoughts.”

“Why does my voice need to be the center of the conversation?” Priscilla wonders.

Microaggressions accrue. They so often shape the world people of color live in; it’s the static in Thervil’s installations: Patterns jitter on the wall, slivers of paper and rough burlap swirl over it. Abstraction conveys jabs and rough edges. Tags with text, such as “*politely smiles*” give voice to code-switching, the everyday labor of being a minority.

People of color will likely nod their heads at this vibrant, sobering show. White people like me may feel they’re eavesdropping on private conversations. Consequently, they are less likely to feel accused or guilty, and more inclined to empathize. I felt privileged to listen and look, and compelled to reflect on my own casual racism. Race relations are more than our enigma; they are our plight.


CHANEL THERVIL: ENGIMA: Reactions to Racism

At Urbano Project, 29 Germania St., Jamaica Plain, through May 3. 617-983-1007, www.urbanoproject.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.