Gallery Review: “Unlearn Fear + Hate” at the Downtown Arts Center

“Unlearn Fear + Hate” is an exhibition by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova currently being housed in the Downtown Arts Center until January 6th. A quick glance around makes it clear that its importance isn’t confined to the white walls of the gallery. This “cycle of artworks” was inspired by “Love Letta to de Worl’”, a poem by Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s first African American poet laureate. He asserts that, “We can’t pass the course on humanity / if we keep failing the lessons / on harmony / and until we unlearn fear and hate.”

In some ways, the artwork is also a documentation. Walker’s words have been painted on streets, inked into skin, and cut into halos that fit any head. The art is out in the world that his poem describes.

Pictured are street scenes as far away as Bulgaria and people from every walk of life. In some photographs, searching for the boldly colored “Unlearn Fear + Hate” stencil is like looking for Waldo. Catch a glimpse and it’s impossible to unsee. In others, such as the photograph of Bourbon Avenue, the words stretch bravely across the pavement, unafraid of oncoming traffic. That stencil was done with Transy’s class of 2020, but Gohde and Todorova remarked that they sometimes receive requests for small stencils from people who have seen their work on social media.

The halo sculptures are interactive, as is evidenced by the Illuminations and photographs of people posing with them. “We think of all the photographs taken in front of our Unlearn Fear + Hate sculptures as equivalent to a visual petition, one that asks all of us to be less fearful and more loving,” explained Gohde and Todorova. The halos have been translated into languages such as Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic, embodying their message of acceptance.

‘Unlearn Fear and Hate’ was translated into various languages and displayed across the world. Photo by Grace Morrison.

Each illumination is hand colored and uses 24 karat gold. They are reminiscent of iconography found in churches, with their haloed subjects enclosed in gold. This is representative of the holiness found in loving one another.

The words have also been cross-stitched with each of the 153 languages spoken in Lexington as of December 2017. The UK College of Social Work sponsored the event, and since then the number has increased. Transy’s Chi Omega chapter also hosted a stitching event in 2016, shortly after the presidential election.

“Unlearn Fear + Hate” is unique in that it is not simply the work of two artists to be studied from across the room. It belongs to Gohde and Todorova, but it belongs to the people too.  Its meaning is unambiguous, leaving no room to debate what is being said. Having literally painted the town, Gohde and Todorova aren’t interested in subtlety.

The message is a simple one: conditioning ourselves to love instead of hate will heal the world’s brokenness. Today, there are endless voices talking over each other, shouting words that seek to counteract Walker’s. Luckily, more and more faces are being added to the “petition”.

Gallery visitors took photos in front of the ‘halo.’ Photo by Grace Morrison.

The exhibit forces viewers to realize that often, hatred and fear are traditions rather than anomalies. No one is born with animosity in his heart, but it seeps in anyway.

When asked what they want viewers to take away from the collection, Gohde and Todorova replied, “If people can remember these words — Unlearn Fear + Hate —then maybe they’ll also remember to try to do what the words encourage all of us to do. Unlearning fear isn’t easy. Some may say it’s not even desirable. We believe that eliminating fear from our communities is a way to invite everyone who is part of them to unlearn their own fears.”

Hopefully, “Unlearn Fear + Hate” will transcend the inertness of words and become personified by the haloed, the tattooed, and those whose feet touch Bourbon.

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