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Nathaniel Donnett’s work has an inner glow that opens windows to the soul

December 20, 2017

The piece: “I looked over Jordan and what did I see; a band of angels coming after me”

The artist: Nathaniel Donnett

Where: Art League Houston, through Jan. 20

Why: The most evocative piece of Nathaniel Donnett’s show “In One Form or Another; Verse One,” suggests the facade of a ramshackle frame house that is emitting a violet-blue glow from inside, an effect that seems both elegaic and ominous.

Two windows are cut into the siding. One is half boarded up. From a distance, an object suspended in the other window appears to be a man’s necktie. Surprise: The hanging thing is an old, slim machete, the kind of tool a slave might have used to cut sugarcane in the 19th century.

This potent visual language seems to say so much, so efficiently, about what it means to be a black male in America, at least from Donnett’s perspective. Does he think about the weight of the past every time he puts on a tie to go out? And is a tie, in its own way, a kind of noose?

In the center of the gallery, leading toward the facade sculpture like a sidewalk, the artist has placed a line of T-shirts he printed several years ago with the message “Am I the Only Black Person Here.” It’s a statement, not a question.

Donnett fills out the show with several large and intricate collaged portraits, projected videos and signage. Donnett, who showcases contemporary culture by people of color through his webzine-blog Not That But This, also has produced an eight-page tabloid newspaper for the show, with unevenly written content about art, culture and politics.

Drumming sounds pervade the space, which looks deceptively spare.

He explained that the show’s various layers investigate moments of protest in the history of black society, art and music - “the spirit and energy that happens in these moments that come from slavery, up to current times.”

All worth investigating, but the wordless, glowing wall is the piece that haunts.