The evocative exhibition at Harmony Hall Regional Center Gallery is titled "Fast Forward: Visual Voices 2002," but curator Takema M. Robinson points out that this group of emerging black artists is looking backward with equal speed.

These nine artists, all recent or current students in the master of fine arts program at Howard University, eschew the debates currently raging over the "burden of identity," Robinson writes in the exhibition's catalogue.

"The artists amassed here have all created works that unabashedly and unapologetically explore issues of cultural identity," she wrote. "Deeply aware of their history, their work is as much about the present and future as it is about the past."

The exhibition is overwhelmingly dominated by themes relating to the life of black women. (All but one of the artists are female.) The statements can be adulatory, as in Mecca Shakoor's lovely silk screen and bead applique{acute} "Adorn Her," or rebellious, as in Rachel Moore's religion-poking installation "Hypocrisy: A Form of Godliness," or colorful and defiant, as in Jacquelin Mari's massive female figures that pop off the canvas, a force too powerful to be contained in matting or a frame.

Kathleen Varnell's stone pot vessel "Covered Beauty," which features a clay cast of a woman's face (modeled by the artist) with fabric covering everything but the eyes, seems particularly relevant in light of the new awareness of Islamic culture. Varnell made the piece well before Sept. 11, however the vessel is a testimonial to beauty in the face of repression that relates to the now-liberated Afghan women and others all over the world.

Blue Powell's works mixing text and graphic art is particularly strong. Her pair of lithographs, "Grounded I" and "Grounded II," with human figures on a playground scene and dotted with text, explore female insecurity.

In "Grounded I," the artist puts her insecure alter ego, 5-year-old Olivia (the artist's middle name) on punishment. "If anyone is looking for Olivia, she's grounded," the text reads. "This time, it's for talking back."

Powell said the works illustrate a woman's coming of age. "There is this child that comes out of you that hinders your growth as a woman," she said in an interview. "This piece is about putting her on punishment. Often our inner critic comes out at the worst time, and you have to learn how to quiet those voices."

Powell's other piece "Imagine Kim," is a two-frame silk screen. One side features the text of the beginning of a Vibe profile of rap artist Lil' Kim, while the second frame has 16 images of the raunchy hip-hop star rendered in pink, blue and yellow, reminiscent of Andy Warhol's multi-hued "Marilyn Monroe."

"Little girls everywhere are watching this transformation that she's going through," Powell said, presumably speaking of both the rapper's multiple cosmetic surgeries and her hoochie-wear. "She's basically a little girl longing for acceptance. She's not confident at all."

The focus on traditional black subjects, exploitation and victimization is a departure from a trend in contemporary black art, praised in the mainstream art world, that rejects black protest and political art. Instead, many black artists are embracing the concept of "post-black," a term coined by Harlem curator Thelma Golden to describe artists who happen to be black but don't feel obligated to pursue a black agenda.

Robinson said that by dealing with traditional black subjects, the exhibiting artists are staying true to their training at Howard, which has a long tradition of "artist-scholars" such as David Driskell, Lois Mailou Jones and Houston Conwell.

Still, other works in "Fast Forward" demonstrate the drawbacks of this approach. Carolyn Davis's acrylic-on-paper image "Third Eye," depicting the profile of a white shadowy figure with a giant eye in the middle of its head, and "Protector" a metal African-style mask, are both concepts that have been used by black artists so much that it has long crossed the line from tribute to cliche{acute}.

Ditto for Tashonia Polynice's mixed-media prints, which feature slave ship diagrams, undulating ocean waves and black figures. Like Davis's works, they are aesthetically appealing, textured and rich with Afrocentric sentiments. But her approach to presenting these ideas lacks freshness.

The goal of artists pursuing a black agenda is a laudable one, particularly admirable now that it appears so many people seem poised to declare victory in the fight against injustice and inequality in America.

However, "post-black" proponents are correct in their contention that if there are no new ways to talk about these issues, the art loses its purpose.

"Fast Forward: Visual Voices 2002" is on view through March 2. Harmony Hall Regional Center Gallery, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. Admission is free. 301-203-6070.

Jacquelin Mari's "Untitled" is in the exhibition "Fast Forward: Visual Voices 2002" at Harmony Hall Regional Center Gallery.