A common complaint for those who want to keep Las Vegas in its stereotypical “Sin City” box is that there is no culture here, no community. The photographic exhibit Obsidian & Neon: Building Black Life and Identity in Las Vegas challenges this perception in more ways than one. The existence of such an exhibit alone is enough to anchor an argument against the stereotype. But the superb content goes several steps further in proving the no culture, no community complaint to be baseless.
The exhibit is on display at the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery through March 8. In this light-filled atrium, conversations happen in soft tones, footsteps click and echo, work continues all around, and the photographs by Jeff Scheid feel as alive as the government employees strolling through. Nearly four decades of photography experience have served Scheid well in creating these commanding portraits of black leaders in the valley’s community.
In their beauty, the images project strength and determination — showcasing the artist’s mastery of shadows and texture. Portraiture by nature is meant to be intimate, revealing, and these are no exception. They are a candid exploration of each person’s vision and visage. And even though most of the featured leaders do not directly address the camera, the connection is palpable and mesmerizing.
The picture chosen as the exhibit’s opener — director of the Oral History Research Center for UNLV Libraries, Claytee White — is perfection. Animated and textural, the photograph brings White and her charming smile into clear focus, the photographer daring you to resist smiling in return. An impossible feat, you will beam back. In Helen Anderson Toland’s portrait, the first black woman principal in the Clark County School District is off-center, almost peripheral behind prominent statues. Yet the eye is drawn to her immediately. Her face is serene, enigmatic. The image is magnetic.
Former congressional candidate Rodney Smith, who coincidentally viewed the exhibit when I did, sees that image and the exhibit as “a battering ram to some of the barriers that are erected physically or mentally” and supporting “a belief that education can make a difference … you’re able to transpose yourself into the images, everybody gets a chance to learn the lessons they’re (the subjects) teaching us through their work.”
Aiding in the “chance to learn the lessons” are Erica Vital-Lazare’s words, which accompany the photographs. The College of Southern Nevada creative writing professor wrote a short piece introducing each luminary’s impressive achievements and contributions to the community. The concise summaries are followed by the stories of how and why these leaders came to Las Vegas, and their paths to success. The stories uncover not only the challenges overcome that form the inspirational bedrock of these role models, but a common thread.
Certain locations make appearances in various people’s narratives. Places like the West Las Vegas Cultural Arts Center, Sam Smith’s Native Son Bookstore — which often acted as a meeting and mingling place — and the West Las Vegas Library. These hubs of connectivity allowed those with a vision, dream, or desire to not just find common ground. They also found encouragement, mentorship, and help. This is a testament to Las Vegas’ true nature as much as it is a testament to these luminaries’ dedication.
This exhibit’s combination of striking images and stirring words moves you. It moves you to action. Torrey Russell, founder and executive director of HOOD, crystallizes a weighty message: “… (Y)ou can bring yourself out. If you bring yourself up. It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.” With a community that works for change and real support from people like him, the path is wide open.