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Step Into the Story

“Promised Land as Proving Ground” Is Conner Prairie’s Newest Permanent Exhibition

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Sarah Browning

Several years ago, staff members at Conner Prairie began doing some research around black settlements and storytelling. In doingConner Prairie so, they decided that they wanted to introduce an exhibition that would tell a wholistic experience of the African American story – one that was not just a program that you could buy a ticket to, but rather a chance for it to be integrated throughout the grounds. They started the project with funding through a Lilly Endowment grant and began to look at the role religion played in African American history. It then began to develop further as they dove deeper. That’s how “Promised Land as Proving Ground,” Conner Prairie’s newest permanent exhibition, came to be.

“This story, viewed mostly through the lens of religion, begins in precolonial Africa and spans all the way to the 21st Century,” says Jesse Kramer, director of exhibits.

Kramer and Dr. Rich Cooper, Conner Prairie’s vice president and chief programs officer, worked with Board Member Dr. Clarence Newsome, a religion historian, and Dr. Charlene Fletcher, the curator of the experience.

“Dr. Fletcher took what was a largely Christian story that Dr. Newsome had put together and expanded out to all different types of religion, including Christianity, Islam, Ifa-Orisha, and Judaism,” Cooper says.

“Every material, every color, every moment of this exhibit is intentional,” Kramer says.

The exhibit, which has many symbolic “Easter eggs,” showcases how African Americans expressed spirituality through music, dance, activities and food.

“Africans who were being kidnapped into slavery would often braid seeds into their hair so that they would have the crops they needed to grow,” Kramer says. “We have okra, watermelon and black-eyed peas in the United States as a result.”

Conner Prairie is constructing a new, climate-controlled building to showcase artifacts and objects that otherwise couldn’t be shown on Conner Prairie’s grounds. Within that space, they’ve made a secondary space to house an artist-in-residence. Visual artist Israel Solomon was selected to be the first artist-in-residence. Solomon, who uses the human figure in the majority of his pieces, creates representational paintings that are geometric in nature, and selects colors that are vibrant and rhythmic. During his yearlong residency, Solomon will produce a body of work that coincides with “Promised Land as Proving Ground.”

“I’m taking the stories that come from the exhibit and creating a reflection of that story through my art,” Solomon says. “I’m thinking of the history in terms of growth, beauty and resiliency. Black people have had a trying and troublesome history here in the U.S. so I want to ask how we can make things better for our children.”

Conner PrairieHistory can be dark, uncomfortable and difficult to digest, but Solomon’s artwork helps bridge a conversation.

“As an artist I’m sometimes able to create imagery that will pull at an individual and spark conversation,” Solomon says.

Cooper maintains that we are in a unique time period right now.

“We believe we have an important role to help bring people to the table so they can have conversations,” Cooper says. “Our goal is to bring back civic dialogue.”

The artist-in-residence building will be a flexible space that’s constantly evolving.

“It’s the 20th and 21st century part of the story,” Kramer says. “If we’re talking precolonial Africa to present day, that’s an umbrella approach to a very complex, nuanced and important history, so this changing gallery space will enable us to showcase an artist-in-residence, while we work on other exhibits where we can do deep dives into certain facets of the story.”

Cooper notes that this allows for people to step into the story at their pace. “People may not see their individualized story, but they can create connections to what they have experienced,” Cooper says.

Even though the exhibit’s grand opening isn’t until March 2024, the public is already buzzing with excitement.

“People want to see how the story is going to be told,” says Cooper, who notes that a recent study by the American Alliance of Museums shows that many people trust museums more than libraries or universities.

“As we move forward to combat historic erasure of things that have happened in the past, ceding the microphone and ceding your voice to the communities whose stories are being told is incredibly important because these stories have often been hidden or buried, pushed away, and not been viewed as worthy of telling,” Kramer says. “As the field moves forward, a lot of these stories are finally coming to the surface.”

This new exhibit tackles some of the large stories that have shaped the human experience here in the U.S. and in the Midwest, making it an exciting time at Conner Prairie.

Perhaps this is why museums from all across the country have been calling Cooper to ask how they are approaching the subject matter.

“Museums have always been the holders of knowledge,” Cooper says. “While we have been in a transition here, this is a community story, not a Conner Prairie story.”

And it goes beyond that.

“Museums have a responsibility to tell the full truth of history,” Kramer says. “If we aren’t doing that, then what are we?”Conner Prairie

Conner Prairie is located at 13400 Allisonville Road in Fishers. For more information, call 317-776-6000 or visit connerprairie.org. For more information about Israel Solomon, visit israelsolomonart.com or find him on Instagram @israelsoloart.

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