Saturday, October 1, 2022

Boca Museum’s “Black Pearls” Spotlights Historic Boca Community

In a conversation last Friday at the VIP opening of his exhibition “Black Pearls” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art,” photographer Reginald Cunningham directly addressed the historic lack of representation in buildings like these. Noting that, as a young art lover, he didn’t see himself in art museums, he has made it an avocation to “put Black faces in white spaces.” Cunningham has accomplished this mission with “Black Pearls,” the first solo museum exhibition for the Washington, D.C.-based activist-artist, and the Boca Museum’s third exhibit focusing on Pearl City and its inhabitants.

Pearl City was and is the beating heart of Black Boca Raton, as well as the city’s most historic neighborhood. Founded in 1915, it predated the incorporation of Boca Raton by more than a decade, and was established as an African-American enclave from its inception. A real estate advertisement from Pearl City’s origins lauds its status as “a brand new colored city … to be governed exclusively by colored people.”

“Macedonia AME Church” in historic Pearl City

When the Boca Raton Museum of Art reached out to Cunningham to commission a series of portraits of Pearl City’s current residents, the photographer researched the area and found similarities to Kinloch, the oldest African-American community in his native Missouri. For Dr. Candace Cunningham (no relation), assistant professor of history at the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts & Letters at FAU, who contributed to “Black Pearls” by collecting oral histories from Reginald Cunningham’s subjects, Pearl City evoked Miami’s Overtown and Philadelphia’s East Germantown—historic Black nexuses whose rich histories need to be preserved, lest they be lost to neglect or gentrification. Cunningham said he “felt a pull to help tell their story.”

“Pastor Ronald Brown” (All images from “Black Pearls” by Reginald Cunningham)

And so he made several trips to Boca Raton, flexing some “mental gymnastics to engrain [himself] into the community.” The residents he met there, many of them elders with deep family roots in Pearl City, were initially reticent to open themselves up to a stranger from the Beltway, understandably wary of being taken advantage of. They had been burned in the past, Candace Cunningham said, after so-called historians spent hours with them, “borrowed” some of their historic belongings, then never returned. Reginald Cunningham made sure to remain in their graces, returning to their doorsteps each time he visited Pearl City, even if he had already photographed them on a previous trip. He was there “to be an ally and an accomplice,” he said.

Cunningham’s vision for “Black Pearls,” on display in a second-floor gallery in the museum, shifted the longer he spent time in the neighborhood. He originally envisioned stately “American Gothic”-style portraits, with residents posing in front of their homes. But he soon found out that many of the proudest advocates for Pearl City no longer live there, even if they still consider it home. And so communal places, such as Pearl City’s community garden and its churches, became backdrops for Cunningham’s intimate images. “The community garden reflected the ideology—the mood of the people,” he said. “It was a beautiful place to create portraits.”

“Ms. Gladys Bettis” in the community garden

At last week’s VIP opening, several of Cunningham’s subjects attended to toast the exhibition’s debut, many beaming with pride as they stood with framed photographs of themselves—regular people momentarily enshrined with a halo of celebrity. Whether a tight close-up, medium shot or full-body portrait, the images exude warmth, hospitality and history. And in their straightforwardness and lack of pretense, they also disarm and beguile.

Cunningham said that one of his professional goals as a chronicler of Black life, whether he’s photographing street activism, hip-hop concerts or portraits for Vogue, is to “tell the truth through my lens.” “Black Pearls” is no doubt an extension of this noble objective.

“Black Pearls” runs through Jan. 22 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real. Tickets cost $10 seniors, $12 general admission. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.


For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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