To fly is to be free. To achieve the once impossible feat of occupying the air is to ditch reality’s reins and escape gravity’s pull. To “get fly” is to adorn oneself in whatever attire elevates the spirit, or whatever gives rise to witnesses singing your praise so loudly, the vibrations levitate you heavenward. The right outfit can make you feel capable of anything, and so, to get fly is to allow oneself to dream. To dream is to allow oneself to fly.
Flight Plans, a solo exhibition by local multimedia artist Njaimeh Njie, now on view at the Carlow University Art Gallery, encourages Black folks to imagine themselves as aviators through her creation of a world that feels like a dream. A world built upon collaged images, home furniture, Black voices, music, and literature.
The threshold of the exhibition leads viewers into a domestic space that feels as familiar as what a Black person might dream of. Not a dream-home, but the kind of home architected by our subconscious, using material mined from memory of spaces we’ve lived and loved in. A space that, in your dream, you know to be your childhood home, even though it doesn’t look exactly like it, because it also includes fragments of the homes belonging to grandparents, cousins, and friends. An amalgamation of places in which you’ve felt at home, reminding us that home is wherever the heart is full and cared for.
The first of the exhibition’s two rooms resembles a living area, with family photos and a library of books, scored by the vinyl spinning atop a record player. The room contains leather mid-century modern chairs, along with vintage wood and wicker end tables that help transport visitors to a time when that furniture was new and not retro. Floating shelves above the seats display a selection of records and books on flight, resettling, and various modes of travel between generations, including cooking and archiving.
Records by jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Earl Hines, guitarist George Benson, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and vocalist Maxine Sullivan show the work of Pittsburgh-native aeronauts who turned speakers around the world into launchpads, throwing their souls into the sky like stars that still burn bright and never descend. There are books on the Great Migration, detailing the period in which southern Black folks en masse found their wings and fled north. Works by Afrofuturists Labelle and Pittsburgh’s own Alisha Wormsley remind us of the intentional practice of manifesting our future existence. Titles by Toni Morrison and Virginia Hamitlon — authors from Ohio, aka the Birthplace of Aviation — tell varying tales of Black folks who learn to fly. Njie summons ancestors, elders, and peers to show us the myriad of ways we can climb higher altitudes.
Furnishing the remaining wall space are Njie’s framed collages, each a compact composition, floating in a sky of white matting like a plane among the clouds. Hovering like birds around each image are handwritten annotations meditating on mobility, place, history, and community.
A wall dividing the space in half is flanked by curtains, like the barriers in airplane aisles, except that these are permanently moved to the side, welcoming entry to the next room. A kitchen, also set in a time before, contains a family dining table with vintage chairs on each of its four sides, covered by a lace tablecloth overlaid by the kind of protective plastic that shielded all precious furniture during this era. A plastic that signaled gratitude for what wasn’t easily attained, and a thoughtful attempt at preservation for what hopefully might be cherished for generations. A prayer for descendants' existence. A reminder that the table is prepared for us. As is the runway Njie guides us to.
A sprawling collage printed on mesh vinyl wraps the back walls, setting aside the grounds for us to run toward our ascent. Titled “The Route,” it depicts a reverse migration and considers the legacy of Black flight, highlighting points of takeoff between African origins, to the arrival in southern America, to settling in Pittsburgh. Njie not only walks us toward the runway paved by our ancestors, she uses her work to help build that which will uplift us, like Rosa Mae Willis Alford, the airplane mechanic with Pittsburgh roots, whose work helped Tuskegee Airmen soar to historic heights, claiming Black folks rightful place in the sky. In fact, Western Pa. is home to more Tuskegee Airmen than any other region, which means there’s an entire aircrew on the other side of the Pittsburgh atmosphere to guide our ascent.
The collage, like the room before it, feels dreamlike, with its flattened surfaces, obscured faces, and infinite overlapping of time and space. Except that this dream’s imagery pulls not only from our memory, but also the memories of our ancestors. There are moments when ancestral memory can feel as familiar as our own, not as if we’ve lived their experiences, but as if we’ve lived with their memories embedded in our minds our entire lives.
But what if it was the other way around? What if our lives are products of their mind, and we merely grew up alongside their memories, as their dreams? What are memories and dreams but cousins living under the shared roof of a mind? What if it has always been a dream and flight was, and always is, possible? That our urge to take to the sky isn’t merely a lofty ambition, but a directive straight from the minds that imagined our boundless existence. To live a dream is the flyest thing anyone can do.
Flight Plans. Gallery hours Mon.-Sat. Continues through October. Carlow University Art Gallery. 3333 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Free. carlow.edu