Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania is pleased to present The Illuminated Body, an exhibition of works by artist Barbara Earl Thomas. Invoking the canonical history of portraiture and silhouettes, Thomas creates powerful narratives that address systemic racism, gun violence, history, literature, and climate change across the media of painting, printmaking, and glass.

The exhibition is composed of largely figurative artworks including a large-scale installation entitled The Transformation Room. Throughout Thomas’ work, light and color interplay to explore both physical and metaphorical illumination. Thomas’ large-scale cut paper artworks celebrate her personal friends alongside great Black cultural icons such as August Wilson, Seth Parker Woods, and Charles Johnson. In tandem with the exhibition, renowned cellist Seth Parker Woods will perform “Difficult Grace” in Zellerbach Theater at Penn Live Arts on April 11, 2024.

The Illuminated Body is a collection that is very near and dear to my heart. The subjects in this series are all real people – many of whom I know personally. Through this exhibition, I wanted to bring to life the idea that despite the challenges we face in modern-day society, we find joy. The media often portrays Black people as constantly plagued by calamity. The Illuminated Body shows the other side – where strength and hope live.

(Barbara Earl Thomas)

“The Arthur Ross Gallery is thrilled to introduce Philadelphia audiences to Thomas' powerful work,” said Emily Zimmerman, Interim Director of Exhibitions and Programs at The Arthur Ross Gallery. “In The Illuminated Body Barbara Earl Thomas invites the viewer into a story world that charts broad cultural narratives and balances those against the personal stories of individuals linked within communities.”

A highlight of a dynamic roster of programming will be a special performance by Seth Parker Woods, whose portrait by Thomas is featured on his Grammy-nominated album and is part of the exhibition. Woods will perform “Difficult Grace” at the Zellerbach Theater at Penn Live Arts on April 11, 2024.

The performance takes inspiration from Dudley Randall’s poem “Primitives” and pulls aspects of Randall’s poem (rhythms, durations, phonetic timbre, syntax, and meaning) to generate each musical gesture and set Randall’s original poem in dialogue with itself in musical time, both verbally and sonically. Music from the record will also accompany the exhibition. Additional programs include a conversation between Barbara Earl Thomas and Dr. Kemi Adeyemi, a lecture with Marisa Williamson, and a community-organized celebration.

The Illuminated Body is organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art and curated by Carolyn Swan Needell, the Chrysler’s curator of glass. The exhibition tour began at The Chrysler Museum of Art from February 24 – August 20, 2023, and is currently on view at The Wichita Art Museum through January 14, 2024.

In tandem with the exhibition, the Chrysler Museum will also release an illustrated catalog with scholarly essays contributed by Carolyn Swan Needell (Carolyn and Richard Barry Curator of Glass), Dr. Kemi Adeyemi (Associate Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and Director of The Black Embodiments Studio at the University of Washington), and Emily Zimmerman (Interim Director of Exhibitions and Programs at The Arthur Ross Gallery), and opening remarks written by the artist.

Earlier this year, The Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania was awarded a major grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support The Illuminated Body exhibition, as well as a series of programs organized for the exhibition.