February 13, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Real poverty, according to author and activist Grace Lee Boggs, is “the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things. Real wealth is not possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers to relate to other human beings.”

If the true wealth of humanity lies in our ability to relate to others and see the world through their eyes until commonality becomes apparent, then the conversational midwife is art. Midwifing these connections is one of the missions of The Union for Contemporary Art, as well as a mission of the artist Barber, a 2018 Union Fellow who prefers to go by this singular name.

Barber is many things in and out of the studio. He is a painter, an activist, a sculptor, a poet, a communicator, a videographer, a performer, and a proud art educator. He projects a fearless aura of positivity. “Peace” is how he says hello and goodbye in person and in writing. Artistically, Barber uses “interdisciplinary practices to articulate various testimonies within and surrounding black America.”

“Art is a conversation,” Barber says. He believes that the choice of media an artist makes should depend on the audience influenced by what kind of conversation the artist wants to have. “My art isn’t just one thing. If I want to have a conversation about police brutality, I’ll use my body because it’s immediate. Painting is more contemplative, so I use that when I want people to think about a subject. I want people to find themselves in their own way, in the work, and to identify with it on their own terms.”

Barber’s Union studio is scattered with projects and new conversations in multimedia, paintings, and a pizza oven made of refractory cement. Each represents its own discussion, from social justice to gender and identity politics. Currently on Barber’s mind is toxic masculinity. This subject is personal for the artist.

“Anything that goes unexamined has the potential to become toxic,” Barber says. “My father died when I was young, and I felt like, growing up, that I didn’t really understand my masculinity all that well. My mother told me not to get a girl pregnant and don’t think with my penis. Had I grown up with my father, I wouldn’t have spent two, three years, or more just trying to figure out things about myself and my masculinity on my own. Even basic things like how to shave without all the trial and error.” 

Hailing from Michigan, this Detroit-based artist attended the Atlanta College of Art (absorbed by Savannah College of Art and Design in 2006). Barber found his way to Omaha and The Union for Contemporary Art by way of a studio visit from Union Artistic Director Nicole J. Caruth, while studying intermedia in the University of Iowa MFA program where he graduated cum laude.

“Barber seemed a perfect candidate for our fellowship program,” Caruth says of the first time she met the artist in Iowa City. “At that time, Barber was working primarily in sculpture and exploring how to transfer his three-dimensional forms and the concepts they embodied into his painting practice, as well as [having a] deep interest in community engagement, which is central to our work at The Union. It’s been a pleasure to witness his process this year and I can’t wait to see what’s next in his life and career.”

Paige Reitz, deputy director of The Union, says that artists like Barber who are accepted into The Union’s Fellowship Program not only show promise as emerging artists in their disciplines, they also exemplify how artists can have the power to use their talents for the greater good. “Barber’s talent and dedication to his practice will undoubtedly continue to propel him into exciting new territories. I believe his work has the power to make a significant impact on our community.”

Barber says he is always evolving as an artist. He’s turned his love of running into his latest exhibit by using his body as a site-specific, temporary sculpture to engage with the community. In June 2018, he held a 5K called “Come Run with Barber” to highlight the idea that by simply running in his black body, he is perceived differently.   

“I have run over 400 miles through the streets of North Omaha since January,” Barber says. “With each step I’m conveying a message, portraying an object, and engaging with the community. The people decide whether I am a beautiful Kerry James Marshall painting or as intractable as Richard Serra’s ‘Arc.’ Regardless of how my practice is received, I’ve learned from my residence at The Union for Contemporary Art that community engagement is essential to my practice as an artist.”

Barber hopes to contribute to the Boggsian conversation to increase the real wealth of the Omaha community. In the coming years, he plans to make Omaha his new home.

In January, he began a fellowship at Neale Woods that continues through August. On May 4, the Baright Gallery at Fontenelle Forest will host a solo exhibition of Barber’s work.


Visit barberpaintspeople.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe

artist Barber wearing orange stocking hat