by tanekeya word | published: october 24, 2013
harmoniously blending the dichotomy of urban baroque and propaganda, artist rashaad newsome takes the grandiose aesthetics of urban african american culture and renders it into pop royalty.
utilizing the devices of art history, technology and music, newsome secretly weaves an enigmatic tale of “how to go rogue on aesthetic elitism,” then, valiantly shows up in museums to exhibit/perform it. commenting on the cultural appropriation of vogueing, the artist reclaimed the marginalized history of the underground, competitive, gay ballroom dance scene from its mainstream counterpart, madonna’s 1990 “vogue” music video, and rendered it into art history at the 2010 whitney biennial.
championing the outsider aesthetic, newsome assumes the roles of a dj, futurist, and engineer by re-mixing, re-imagining, and re-coding aesthetics. boundless in his approach of deconstructing art and culture, rashaad newsome chatted with saint heron on limitations, outlets, ray charles and more...
on outlets + limitations
tanekeya word [tw]: in the past 5 years, what has creating art via multiple outlets afforded you the opportunity to do—that you may have never imagined?
rashaad newsome [rn]: in preparation for my solo booth during armory this year, i was researching ways to chrome elements of my frames in order to further reference the automobile. i was met with lots of obstacles, as the elements were too large for the usual chroming process, [so] i opted for spray chroming.
after chroming the elements, i discovered that because the elements were made of so many different materials they were too contaminated to appropriately take on the chrome patina i was hoping for. however, that failure yielded a fantastic reward.
the patina that did take was a sort of a pewter color. i added several gold and candy pearls to the surface, which turned it into a sort of gold chrome-pewter hybrid that i could never have imagined. at the moment, i’m further developing this finish and i’m quite happy about the direction it’s going in.
[tw]: you have dedicated years to mastering the arts: what limitations in the art world, have you faced in your pursuit to becoming a professional multidisciplinary artist?
[rn]: well, trying to juggle daily life expenses and having a studio practice was quite hard.
[tw]: "shade compositions sfmoma" , embodies the call and response narrative of african american culture, while traversing through african american urban gender coding–via black female body language: smacking of lips, head rolls, finger snapping and eyes bucked. these body language dialects have also been re-mixed into a sort of queer subcultural language too.
the outsider aesthetic is then paralleled with chamber music, and performed by multicultural, gender bending, male and female performers. what statement are you making with “shades compositions” as a performance piece in an art museum?
[rn]: “shade compositions” is a minimalist piece of music, a performance, an anthropological study, as well as a celebration and critique of black vernacular. for me, what’s most interesting about the piece is how this particular vernacular has become an open source for people to present themselves from a position of power.
[tw]: jewelry has a reoccurring cameo in your collages. what conversation is being had between jewelry and urban culture?
[rn]: my work plays a lot with the language of the baroque, as well as the design formulas of heraldry, which is essentially a collection of images that represent social power and rank.
in my collages, i use images from popular culture that communicate that today. through image repetition and manipulation i try to achieve color, form, depth and abstraction.
[tw]: how has being a native new orleanian and being immersed in its rich and eclectic culture affected your work as an artist?
[rn]: in so many ways! i’m sure the local traditions of pageantry and street theater have informed the importance of sound and performance in my practice.
also, the new orleans style brass bands, which has played a significant role in the development of traditional jazz, has informed my work. improvisation is consistently regarded as being one of the key elements of the language of jazz and in a lot of ways this lingua franca is the underpinning of a lot of the notions explored in my performances, “five”, as well as, “shade composition.”
[tw]: you have re-coded the historical european 16th-18th century coats of arms by placing a re-mixed homage to it at the center of your collages and rendering 21st century american/pop culture propaganda in the background. if you were to decode the “herald”  series concept for us, what would be the achievements depicted and status or position in society being deconstructed?
[rn]: my interest in heraldry is not a literal one. i use the language of heraldry as a design formula and its language of power as material. for me, the pieces have roots in heraldry, but as well play with the design formulas inherent to baroque architecture. using contemporary status symbols of wealth and power, i try to create works of abstraction that speak to fantasy, human impulse, and america’s capitalistic sensibility. my hopes are that the works will encourage a conversation about the complexities of popular culture and the emerging global mainstream. as well as, how its language of power is an institution that continues to dominate.
[tw]: if you could take a blast from the past, what artist, and what song would you most like to create a music video for? why?
[rn]: that is a hard question because there are so many, but at this moment i will say “sunset” by ray charles. i just really like the song and it leaves so much room for abstraction so I think it would be fun to bring it to life visually.//
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: OCTOBER 30, 2013
In “If He Hollers, Let Him Go”, Rachel Kaadzi’s Ghansah’s penetrating essay on “the post-Dave Chappelle” era we find ourselves within presently, the essayist delves deeply into the comedian’s politically conscious upbringing. Underscoring the Pan-Africanist and Black intellectualist roots of Chappelle’s mother and father, Ghansah argues that perhaps the comedian’s racially-charged body of work and infamous 2003 departure from his eponymous show was pre-destined. The comedian has only made small efforts to surface again in the public eye, but his provocative handling of race has remained a huge influence to Black creatives across platforms ever since.
Some ten years later, enter painter, Devin Troy Strother.
Wielding a paintbrush, rather than a mic stand, the visual artist is not your typical professional comedian, nor does he have any desire to assume the perch of the art world’s “Black role model.” However, his growing oeuvre would suggest that he’s just as skilled at tackling controversial race topics with the use of humor. Where Dave Chappelle’s comedic work was rooted in his depiction of what it meant to be Black in America, Strother’s tackles the assumed roles and expectations of such an identity.
Timelier than a punch line, the California-raised artist deems that his work continues where contemporaries, Kara Walker and Glenn Ligions’ stops. Instead of recounting Black American history, Strother documents the present. Since entering the mainstream art world in 2009, Strother’s work has predominantly revolved around the creation of his exaggerated Black & White silhouettes. Through the visual interplay of their bodies, the artist is able to provide biting and graphic critiques of these often awkward, startling, and humorous exchanges.
Drawn with large white scleras, blue irises, wide red lips, and large white smiles, his painting’s feature Black protagonists who both evoke and appropriate established signifiers of black face. In turn, through a kaleidoscopic use of color, they intermingle with Strother’s White characters (who are depicted as physical juxtapositions to their Black counterparts) to outrageous and colorful results. Creating social critiques on power structures, beauty, violence, and interracial sex, Strother’s White characters are in turn featured with black eyes, pink lips, flowing blonde or brown hair. The figures’ physical sameness has, in fact, raised the question for many, ‘Is it White people that he’s drawing overall–just in Black face–again?’
In his L.A. based show, Look At All My Shit!, on view at Richard Heller Gallery through early November, and his upcoming New York show, I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga, opening at Marlborough Broome Street on November 17th, the provocative artist also plays relentlessly with the dynamics of race and language. This is no better exemplified than in the cheeky titles of his very work, they relying heavily on street slang and the language’s innate power to include and exclude. Take for instance, “My Momma’s House is So Abstract, so Contemporary that Shit Look Like a Morandi Tho.”, said Keniecia to Shaniecia, This is my Momma’s House when it was White., or even, That National Geographic Shit: When Things Got Real in Africa, “Run nigga run!” said James to Clare.
As one may assume, Strother’s work has received both positive and negative feedback–sometimes depending on the generation and the racial makeup of its viewer–and Saint Heron had a chance to speak with the polemical artist about the public’s reception, trap houses, Matisse, Rome, comedy, race and post-postness. It was mad provocative, tho.
Your solo exhibition, I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga, is set to debut this November 17th at Marlborough Broome Street: what dichotomies are you exploring in your upcoming show? Are any of these explorations, via content or technique, different than previous shows. If so, how?
The show for Marlborough is mainly a bunch of sculptures. The title goes along with the idea of me working with this established institution, that’s been around since the 1940s, and [the gallery] opening this new space on the Lower East Side, that’s engaging emerging and younger artists. It’s like Rome creating this new outpost, and me showing at this new outpost.
I’m showing nine sculptures and two to three paintings, so it’s definitely a shift for me because most of my shows have mainly been paintings. I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga is sort of an ode to that: to Rome having all of these like beautiful sculptures that stood the test of times, then Roman, Greek, Renaissance-esque sculpture being like one of the first things you learn about in high school when you are introduced to Art History. I’m launching off of that. It’s about the arrival of something new—putting your best foot forward.
If there were a theme for November’s show, what would it be?
Growth. The work is a little more mature than the last couple of shows I’ve done. Even from the show I just did in LA, Look At All Of My Shit!, to this show, there is growth. It’s me taking a different step, so—growth and change.
As a mixed media artist, who navigates through collage and sculpture to create visual narratives: what impact does a collage piece have in carrying out the message in a narrative that is undeliverable in sculptural form and vice versa?
Sculpture is relatively a new way for me to work. I’m limited in my knowledge of the materials as of right now, so there is so much potential for me to do a lot more with it. It’s not so automatic and immediate like making the paintings alone in my studio. Sculpture is more collaborative and explorative.
What are the public’s reactions to your artwork, when viewed in a gallery setting?
It’s usually pretty positive. I’ve gotten one or two negative e-mails from older, Black women. That’s the only problems that I’ve ever encountered. The works that I make aren’t specifically for Black people. It’s not something that I feel like other people, whether you’re White, or Asian, or whatever [ethnicity], they are situations and themes that so many people are used to. I do use stereotypes and different types of language to talk about what’s going on in my paintings with the titles, but I don’t feel like that language is something that only Black people understand. I try to pick a subject that is a little more all-inclusive, that everyone can relate to, and it just so happens that it has Black people in it.
It’s not a Black thing. It is just a thing that happens to have Black people in it. Like a movie: it’s not a Black movie, just a movie that has Black people in it. If it’s a movie and it has all White people in it, it’s just a movie—not a White movie. So, why does it have to be categorized as a “Black thing”? Why can’t it just be an American thing or just a thing? I recently watched, 12 Years A Slave, and it is a movie that equally everyone can take a part in; opposed to Friday. If you didn’t grow up in a Black surrounding there are a lot of cues in that movie that you just will not get. Whereas, 12 Years A Slave, there is so much [historical] information that has been presented to everyone already that they kind of already have that information stored in their brains, so it’s not like something for a particular audience.
At the foundation of it all, artists create what they know; what does your art say about Devin the person? How has your family upbringing, and your localization, influenced your views on race in the US?
I always say that I never wanted my work to be about race—but it is. I guess my work reflects how I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Asian and White…I didn’t grow up like a lot of Black people. I’ve always dated interracially, girls from other races, and my mom and dad are mixed, so a lot of my life has been about race. Growing up, I was usually the only Black kid in a lot of my classes, so my work reflects what it is like to be a Black kid, who grew up in the 90s, in the advent of Black [pop] culture, being embraced by people, and it was no longer a negativething to be a Black person.
I grew up in a time where I was the “cool kid” because I was the only Black kid. It was “cool” to be Black, whereas [for] my grandfather or dad it was probably a little different. [They] probably encountered a lot more racial shit growing up than I did. I think my work reflects a more optimistic outlook with race. It’s like an outlook to grow up Post-Civil Rights, in a Post-Post state, where rap music became American music.
When I was in Europe, one of the first things people would talk [to me] about was Beyoncé and Jay-Z–even before now, it was Michael Jackson. Black culture is American culture, so much that I grew up during a time where it was the thing to be Black. [My view of being Black], it’s this opposite view of [Black] people before me, that have been portrayed as a struggle and of the embarrassment [endured], and my view is like, ‘I understand that this happened, and you guys can talk about it because you went through it, supposedly, so you can talk about it, but I’m going to talk about what I went through.’ I didn’t encounter that much racial shit. I did, a little, when I look back on it now. Obviously I see a bit more things that were fucked up, but overall it was pretty good. It wasn’t as bad, comparatively.
Your work often pulls from pop culture for references, euphemisms, and such: is there a recent moment in pop culture you would love to extract from? What would it be entitled?
I’m doing this solo show in Madrid and I recently did these series of paintings using Matisse’s Dance. I repainted it over and over and turned the White girls, Black, and I entitled the paintings Twerk I, Twerk II, and Twerk III, because Matisse had Dance I, Dance II…and studies for Dance III. I did a couple of paintings of trap houses, abandoned drug houses; it’s not newly a recent moment. And I’m doing drug deal paintings, so that’s something that’s been on the forefront of my mind.
If you eradicated ‘nigga’, used ‘Standard English’, and replaced the names of your urban subjects with Eurocentric names, could the context of your art stand-alone; would the demographic of your collector’s change?
Yes, I think the work would stand-alone. I could do it that way and blur out the n-word. I think changing the language is something I’ll have to deal with later. I don’t know if the demographic would change. The demographic of the people who mainly buy my work are older, Jewish women, and a lot of gay couples. I have some good Black collectors, but most of my collectors are Jewish, or Greek, so most of my collectors are not African American. I don’t know if that would change, if I started speaking a different way, that more Black people would buy my work than White people. But, maybe they buy it for the titles, sometimes to be able to say the title. Some of my collectors don’t even like to say the titles. Some are uncomfortable to say the titles back to me.
Your work reminds me of a Richard Pryor, a Dave Chappelle: a provocateur who uses humor to tackle society’s racialized ills and inequities. What is the origin of your racial humor?
Oh, that’s a compliment. I grew up watching a lot of Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx,“The Wayans Brothers”, “Martin,” fucking “Family Matters”, “Fresh Prince”, BET, and “Comic View”, so I grew up watching a lot of Black sitcoms, but I don’t know if that’s where it comes from. I definitely have always been into comedy. To this day I listen to a lot of comedians’ podcasts. I’m trying to read up a little more on the history of comedy, and basically, the social aspects of comedy and its history. A big part of my work is like that: the titles of my work are like “the shut up’s” to the joke and the image is, like, the punch line, or vice versa. That’s why the titles work more so [as] Dave Chappelle than Richard Pryor.
Dave talked about subjects that were Black, but they weren’t subjects that were especially catered to Black people. If you listen to Cedric The Entertainer or Steve Harvey, their acts are a lot more based towards Black people. Dave Chappelle just talks about life, with views of what it is like to be a Black kid now; it’s a racial thing that is familiar to all.
The great comedian Dick Gregory asserted, “Comedy is just disappointment within a friendly relation”; does the humor used in your artwork address personal disappointments that you have when analyzing race?
Yes and no. Some things you cannot help; it’s just the way it is. Sometimes, after I sold a piece and I’m talking to a collector, or talking about the piece, and they’ll say like, “nigger,” instead of nigga, and they’ll keep saying, like, “nigger,” and I’ll have to like stop and say, ‘Oh, no it’s nigga. Don’t saynigger,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, oh, I’m so sorry.’
I feel like, ‘Am I perpetuating a problem, or am I just adding to culture?’…sort of like that same dilemma that Dave Chappelle went through when he stopped [the production of his show, The Dave Chappelle Show in 2003]. [My artwork is] making note of what you mentioned [I mentioned Devin’s work as a reflection of the assumed roles and expectations of being Black in America] and showcasing what that looks like to me.
I’m, like, horrible at fucking sports—at all sports—and kids would always pick me at fucking basketball first. I went to a lot of schools because, I was kind of a bad kid, so I moved around a lot. Whenever I went to a new school, in P.E. kids would be like, ‘We want fucking Devin.’ Minutes into the game, they realize they made a great mistake. They’re thinking, ‘He’s got cornrows, he’s gonna’ be good.’[laughing] You are very wrong: these are all aesthetics…[laughing]. You are expected to be these things.
Comedians have stated that they “live on the joke, and the joke alone”—can the art world live on just the joke alone, without it reinforcing racial implications?
I mean, that’s part of the joke—the racial implications. I think they kind of need each other. If I made paintings with nothing [but] just White people in them, I think the question would eventually come up of, ‘Why don’t you paint any Black people?’ With my work, personally, I feel like I’m dependent on the jokes aspect and the racial aspect: I need both, and one helps the other and [vice versa].
The joke part kind of takes the edge off the racial part, and the racial part kind of gives the joke more value and worth as a cultural thing that I’m talking about. Any institution has to label things, and put it in its place so they can later review it as whatever. It’s subjective to the person looking at it. I’m working with so many things that have already been activated long ago by someone else with racially charged ideas, so I kind of don’t have control over that to a certain extent. Everyone will have a different emotional ride with it; some will have a similar ride. Because of the comedic thing that’s kind of funny and light-hearted, I think a lot of people can ride that wave.
I don’t think I’m talking about anything that’s not there, like I am pigeonholing Black people. I’m taking this language and [these] ideas that could be considered “not of an educated class”, and taking these things out of that context, and putting it into the context of this White, prestigious, institutional cube that critiques cultural advents through society. So, taking one part of society and placing it into another part of society to be viewed and criticized—that’s what everyone does with artwork—to make a new thing.
I don’t feel like I’m downgrading [the Black community] at all, if anything I am bringing more thought to the idea of what is language, and who is allowed or [has] the privilege to use language…at a certain point, when do you go forward in Black culture.
It’s funny, like, people like me, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Trenton Doyle, Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford…Everyone has to pick what part of the Black culture textbook you’re going to talk about: ‘What am I going to embrace?’ Everyone picks something different. I didn’t want to pick something. I wanted to talk about something new, what it is now, and all those things that everyone else talked about led to this. I’m kind of the accumulation of that shit, the end result. This is what you get after all of that.
You stated that you are not “the Black role model of the art world”; in 20 years, who would you like to be remembered as in the art world?
I said that in response to feeling like I had some type of responsibility to promote Black culture in an uplifting way. Yet, I’d like to be remembered as an artist who became a part of history, and not being subjected to being a sub-category of it.
Devin Troy Strother’s show Look At All My Shit!, is now on view at the Los Angeles Richard Heller Gallery until November 4th. His upcoming show, I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga, is opening at New York’s Marlborough Broome Street gallery on November 17th, 2013.
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 7, 2013
Enigmatic like a Das EFX song, the bold, colorful works that Chicagoan visual artist, Nina Chanel Abney creates, blur the lines of abstract and figurative art. A coded deconstruction of contemporary culture, Abney’s work leaves her viewers investigating every inch of the paper or canvas, actively attempting to decipher the meaning of the numerology, iconography, portraiture, masked figures, hard lines, and shapes that she paints.
This, juxtaposed against the wood totem pole sculptures and the detailed character developments that are widely found in the work of visual artist,Charlie Roberts. A Hutchison, Kansas-native, Roberts is, well, “not in Kansas anymore”, but he’s familiar with the territory that he draws inspiration from to paint and build his stories.
Like a “pop cultural DJ” of sorts (think Alex Katz), Roberts’ large portraiture and oil paintings of elongated, fluid figures have a re-mixed Paul Gauguin-esque ethereal quality to them, yet they seem to be distressed in nature due to the washout/scratches integrated in his painting technique.
These Midwesterners seem like an unlikely pair, but Nina Chanel Abney and Charlie Roberts brought their anomalous styles and teamed up like Chaka Khan and Rufus to collaborate on a duet show at New York’s Kravets|Wehby gallery, entitled, “Stacks on Decks.”
The exhibition, which runs from October 17th-November 16, 2013 explores the artists’ love for hip hop, rap, and trap music, and analyzes the thematics in its lyrics, such as T.I.’s braggadocios “Stacks on Deck,” Rick Ross’s ostentatiousness, Lil Wayne’s classic cup of purple syzzurp, and Kanye West’s “eyes on the dollar like Illumanati.” Interviewing Nina Chanel Abney and Charlie Roberts had me laughing, doing the “Wild Wild West” dance, and going down memory lane, while spitting classic rap and hip hop lyrics. Besides my growing affection for the “Hair Weave Killer”, I have yet to feel connected to the trap music genre, so Charlie put me on to some music happening just 45 minutes away from me in Chicago; I hear the rap scene is pretty beastie over there.
The visual artists chatted with Saint Heron on the analogous nature of the art and music business, mixtapes, Kool Moe Dee, Gucci Mane, “Picasso Baby,” and cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation. Here’s what happens when rap hits the canvas.
Your duet exhibition, “Stacks on Deck”, opened on October 17th at Kravets|Wehby Gallery in Chelsea: how did this group show form, and how was the theme produced?
Nina Chanel Abney [NCA]: One day I was hanging out at Kravets|Wehby, and [the gallerists] mentioned that there was an open date for a show that they had yet to fill. So, I immediately suggested that they give the show to Charlie and I. I’ve wanted to collaborate with Charlie for some time now; when the opportunity came I took it. As far as the theme, Charlie and I pretty much share the exact same taste in music, so it just seemed like the perfect starting point.
Charlie Roberts [CR]: Every time Nina Chanel Abney and I are in the same room, it’s rap talk right away. I love Nina’s work, it made good sense.
How were you introduced to painting? How were you introduced to rap and hip hop music? How old were you?
NCA: I have been drawing since I was a child. I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I started painting once I found an old paint set in the basement that belonged to my mom. I don’t know how old I was when I was introduced to rap, pretty young. My favorite rapper was Kool Moe Dee. Then I, of course, became a fan of Salt n Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah. But, I guess that stuff was more PG. The early 90s were the best! Bone Thugs N Harmony’s Creepin on Ah Come Up: I can’t tell you how many times I played “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” I remember hiding the insert to Snoop’sDoggystyle tape from my mom. In high school I would have parties where we would gather to watch movies like Master P’s “I’m Bout It.” I was into anything that came from Cash Money; I remember loving their CD cases because they were bright neon colors. Not too long ago, I watched Kool Moe Dees “Wild Wild West” video on YouTube. I couldn’t believe how ancient it looked. The evolution of rap and hip hop music has been tremendous.
CR: I always liked making stuff, looking at pictures. The artist, Peter Schuyff, taught me alot about “capital P painting.” My first real rap memory was seeing the “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A G Thang” video on MTV (maybe the best rap video ever made, definitely in the conversation), but I was mesmerized—hooked. I was probably 9 or 10 years old, my adolescence was soundtracked by rap. It went from G-funk stuff, to Wu Tang, and the backpack rap when I was 15 to 17, to the Cash Money stuff, and all of the Houston stuff around 18. I love it, can’t get enough, and I feel like right now we are living through an incredibly creative and explosive moment in rap; so much going on…the Chicago scene!
Do you consider yourselves DJs or MCs in your own right? How do you engage with rap outside of your body of work?
NCA: In undergrad I amassed a huge collection of songs and CDs; I always managed to get my hands on new music, so I became the go-to person on campus for mixtapes. I would also DJ parties every once in a while. I have almost 13,000 songs in my iTunes, so I am still the go-to person amongst my friends for music. Outside of that, I go on DatPiff, and WORLDSTARHIPHOP daily to stay up to speed on the rappers that I am into. They aren’t usually played on the radio.
CR: I am. I have been putting out mixtapes and playing shows with Jim Bones under the name ChopGang for the last two years. Check outsoundcloud.com/chopgang. I DJ occasionally.
But above all, I am a fan. I’ve been rap crazy since I was 15, driving around small town Kansas in my ‘76 Impala, with my 6x9s, knocking out to the Wu. I keep up with what I am into with regular visits to GBE300.com, DatPiff, and WORLDSTARHIPHOP, and I go to shows when something good comes to Oslo [Norway]. I just saw Waka and DJ Ace at a small venue in town:.A++++. Amazing showmen!
During a typical studio day/night, do you listen to rap music while you work, if so, how does that meta process work?
NCA: It really depends on my mood, or what I am working on. But I mostly listen to jazz, rap, or R&B while I’m painting. Occasionally, I listen to “The Read” podcast. I’m currently shuffling through the following CDs: Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name, K. Michelle’s Rebellious Soul, Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2, MMG’s Self Made Vol. 3, Gucci Mane’s Diary of a Trap God, Chella H’s The Realest Bitch In It, Soulja Boy’s Loud, and Lil Kim’s Hardcore.
CR: Only Rap and RnB in the studio. Nothing else works. Top ten records in the studio right now: Chief Keef’s Bang 2 and Almighty So, Lil Durk’sSigned to the Streets, Gucci Mane’s Diary of a Trap God, Jeezy and Cash Out’s mixtape, Boss Yo Life Up, Soulja Boy’s Loud, King Louie’s Drilluminati, Tink’s Winter’s Diary, Tity Boi’s Codeine Cowboy, and Charli XCX’s True Romance.
What are the parallelisms between music and painting?
NCA: When I’m explaining the art business to someone for the first time, I usually directly compare it to the music business. There are so many similarities in how we function as people making a living from our artistry, that it is usually intensely personal. Additionally, how our businesses operate: a group of painters may be represented by a gallery, like rappers are signed to a label. The rap world has its Jay-Zs and Diddys, like we have our Jeff Koons and Damien Hirsts. A rapper may come out with a CD once every year or so, and drop mixtapes simultaneously. We have a solo exhibition once every year or so, and participate in groups shows, simultaneously. We share similar sensibilities and concerns about the future of our culture, like our debates and qualms about artists becoming “too commercial.”
In our globalized world, where everyone seems to be a global citizen, is there still a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? If so, what are the differences?
NCA: I don’t necessarily see a difference between to the two. I see cultural appropriation now more as someone coming late to the party, so to speak, to appreciate the culture. But rather late or not, I think it’s [a] genuine appreciation for an interest in the culture nonetheless.
CR: I’m a White guy who loves rap and makes rap, so maybe I am a little too close to the question to answer it, but I have noticed that most of the handwringing in the press about these issues (i.e. Miley Cyrus) comes from the White media. It feels that hip hop and rap have opened up a lot in the Internet age, with regards to race, gender and sexual orientation.
How has being a Black American, who listens to and interprets rap and hip hop music, which is culturally Black American music, affected your artwork and your view on urban, Black American culture?
NCA: I find the “hustler’s mentality”, that most rappers have, very motivating and inspiring. Of course, they have more than their fair share of fun, but their work ethic is admirable. A lot of these rappers are completely immersed in the culture and are creating 24/7. Think about the amount of songs Tupac created. And with music being so accessible now, artists are coming out with mixtapes every other week. Listening to rap while I paint motivates me to take that same approach when I’m working in the studio.
How has being a White American, Norwegian transplant, who listens to and interprets rap and hip hop music, which is culturally Black American music, affected your artwork and your view on urban, Black American culture?
CR: I was raised in Kansas; I’ve been in Norway for the past 7 years. Kansas is not a hotbed of rap. We have Tech N9ne, and the town I grew up in was more directly influenced by Mexican culture; [rapper] South Park Mexican was a favorite of ours. I grew up in the MTV Rap video era, [so] for kids like us, in the middle-of-nowhere small-town USA, it was aspirational. So much of hip hop is about changing your situation (now, it is primarily about how the situation has changed), and it struck a chord with us. We wanted more than the cards we had been dealt. I love that striving sentiment in rap, it is such an American sentiment: “We started from the bottom, now we here.”
Nina, you attended Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” performance at Pace Gallery. What did you think of the “performance art” piece, the audience, and Jay-Z’s reach into connecting the art world to urban Black culture through music?
NCA: I thought it was really cool. In seeing videos and pictures of Basquiat and Keith Haring, it appeared that music and art used to go hand-in-hand. Grace Jones in her collaboration with Haring, Basquiat, and his band, Gray… I don’t know why that has changed over time, but I’m excited about the idea of music and art connecting again. Particularly, within urban Black culture, because there is such a lack of African American students pursuing Fine Arts. I don’t think they know that you can make a living, and a good living as an artist. So, I applaud artists like Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Kanye, Santigold, and Solange for taking steps towards bridging that gap.
Lastly, fill in the blank: You know it’s rap when______, you know it’s hip hop when, ______ and you know it’s trap music when__________.
NCA: You know it’s rap when you are satisfied with just a good beat and hook, you know it’s hip hop when you are concentrating on the lyrics, and you know it’s trap music when you are compelled to turn the bass up.
CR: You know it’s rap when you can dance to it, you know it’s hip hop when you can’t dance to it, and you know it’s trap music when you hear all the machine gun hi hat runs.
Nina Chanel Abney and Charlie Roberts’ show, “Stacks on Deck”, is still on view at Kravets|Wehby until November 16th, 2013.
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 11, 2013
The artistic cultural production and cultural theory that is Afrofuturism has long used the fantastical and Science Fiction elements of robotics and aliens, to solve the inequality of colonialism by transcending the social limitations of Black Diasporic life in Western society. Although appearing cosmically perfect, it cannot be denied that Afrofuturism’s history is far from utopic: the trauma of the African transatlantic slave trade, W.E.B Du Bois’ emphatic theory of double-consciousness, Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic folklore depicting humor amidst trauma, Sun Ra’s militant blaxploitation music and imagery, Octavia Butler’s equivocal writings on outsider aesthetics, and lets not forget thesouthernplayalisticcadillacfunkymusic of OutKast. Resilient, AfroFuturists have owned, analyzed, deconstructed, and re-coded their joy and pain, and those of their ancestors, to re-imagine the African Diasporian future—freefrom Western social stigmas.
For decades, Afrofuturism was publicly linked to literature and music; and yet recently, a courtship has begun with fine art. On November 14th The Studio Museum in Harlem took the helm and debuted its Afrofuturist exhibition, “The Shadows Took Shape“. We at Saint Heron are no strangers to Afrofuturism as emerging and Saint Heron featured artists, Kelela, BCKingdom, Sampha, have strains of Afrofuturist aesthetics coded within their work, so it was a pleasure to speak with the curators, Naima J. Smith and Zoe Whitley, on Afrofuturist activism, the theme of flight throughout African American history, and accidental Afrofuturists. Set amidst the backdrop of a sensitive and rich history, like a griot “The Shadows Took Shape“exhibition and the Saint Heron interview navigates through rough terrain to tell an ever-evolvingstory of a new Black frontier.
Tanekeya Word [TW]: What is Afrofuturism, and when were you introduced to the term? Why is now the most opportune time to introduce the concept to the public?
Naima Keith [NJK]: First coined by Mark Dery in 1993, Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African Diaspora through a technoculture and science fiction lens. In the “Shadows Took Shape”, we are arguing for an expansive definition of Afrofuturism and its discourse around black cultural production, technology and speculation on the future, recognizing that the movement is profoundly connected to geography, location and time period—across spatial and temporal boundaries—and most clearly develops out of the historical and social conditions that shaped black life in America from the nineteenth century onward. Since 1993, when the term was coined, Afrofuturism has been stretched, molded and extended to involve a wide range of disciplines, artists, writers, musicians and scholars.
Zoe Whitley [ZW]: The funny thing is, Naima and I have been asking that very question of terminology and first encounters to so many people recently – scholars, artists, writers – that I’ve really had to cast my mind back to when I first came across the term. I think it may have been as a teenager, in relation to the Martha Washington comics toward the end of the 1990s. I know it wasn’t directly through cultural criticism, which I came to later but I loved what I was seeing. It felt so resonant and I wanted to learn more.
Working with contemporary visual culture these last few years, I kept coming across work in a number of different contexts and media that I felt spoke directly to Afrofuturist concerns. They often owed a debt – whether conscious or unconscious – to the Afrofuturist strategies that have come before. Or were so indelibly part of the history but not as well known in America (I’m thinking specifically about Black British artists such as John Akomfrah). The time seemed right to explore the breadth of the subject and to instigate a few cross-cultural conversations and juxtapositions that might not otherwise be taking place. I spoke at a conference in Mexico City in 2012 about Afrofuturism and collaborative performance, looking specifically at Mendi + Obadike’s “4 Electric Ghosts“, Laylah Ali’s collaboration with choreographer Dean Moss and Jacolby Satterwhite’s fascinating collaborations with his mother. I was engaged in a series of conversations about Afrofuturist viewpoints with Prof. John Jennings (SUNY Buffalo) and he was instrumental in helping me convert practice into theory. Naima, meanwhile, was delving into the depth of the subject through research into the Studio Museum’s permanent collection and a number of studio visits nationwide, building on her previous exhibitions and artists’ projects. Our combined depth and breadth helped us develop what became the Shadows Took Shape.
TW: The Studio Museum in Harlem has passionately documented the artistic cultural production of the Black American identity shift, via their curatorial practice, and invited the public to engage with the works. What led to The Studio Museum’s shift from Post Black Art to Afrofuturism in its most recent exhibition, The Shadows Took Shape, which opened on November 14th?
ZW: I agree that SMH has been a key definer of cultural movements, moments and public engagement. To me, presenting an expansive view of Afrofuturism is part of the Studio Museum’s continuum rather than representing any shift in perspective. The museum’s mission is to be the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture. As a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society, it’s been an honor to be invited to co-curate this exhibition and I feel all of the artists we’ve included in this group show do justice to the mission and further our understanding of Afrofuturism and its reach.
NK: Zoe said it perfectly!
TW: Do you believe that in order for the African Diaspora to make it into the future, the community has to look like Androids, or Aliens, or have the ability to fly?
ZW: If I can flip your question a little, I am fascinated by the recurring theme of flight and space travel throughout our African-American tradition, particularly in music. Uplifting spiritual hymns such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” get reinterpreted as the Mothership in lyrics like Parliament’s“Mothership Connection” (“swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride”) and more recently still, we hear it reverberate in songs like Kanye West’s “Spaceship.” I’d say that the ability to fly – as in transcend our everyday realities in order to survive – is already what’s enabled African Diaspora culture to thrive in the face of often incredible hardship and adversity.
That’s what’s helped us make it into the future up until now, and I imagine it will sustain us longer still.
NK: Not at all. In Wanuri Kahiu’s film “Pumzi“, the director depicts the story of a community forced into subterranean sequester by a “water war.” Asha, the central (human) character in director Kahiu’s short film, is a museum archivist/curator who risks the security of her world in order to nurture a plant that manages to flourish in the postapocalyptic landscape. The film touches on a number of once unimaginable flash points, such as the politicization of water and its access, posited here and elsewhere in geopolitical discourse as a potential global cataclysm.
In David Huffman’s paintings, he uses figuration and abstraction to explore themes of race, politics and power. The works in his “Traumanauts” series (1997–2009) feature black astronauts exploring the terrain of outer space/inner space created from the abstract materiality of paint. Washes, splatters and strokes conjure mysterious atmospheres and ambiguous landscapes populated by Trauma Smiles and Trauma Eves—characters Huffman has excavated from stereotyped images of the transatlantic slave trade. Over the years, these figures have removed their protective suits, taking on the appearance of basketball players. They have re-materialized to join in key historical events. Each iteration continues the artist’s exploration of the social and psychological possibilities of transcendence. In “MLK” (2008), featured in “The Shadows Took Shape”, Moses parts the mossy green terrain allowing an assembly of traumanauts to lead Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession. The painting collapses two momentous historical narratives into one, the secular and the biblical. The traumanauts are nomadic characters. The exact location of their existence is mutable and mysterious, manifesting itself through various narratives as ruminations on the multidimensionality of African-American life.
TW: Like the Afrofuturist, archeologist, and writer Zora Neale Hurston, Ellen Gallagher’s body of work has etchings of humor within trauma. Utilizing layered rhetoric, Gallagher excavates the layered paper in her collages to dig deeper into Black Identity, African American vernacular, Western thought, Science, and Science Fiction. What Afrofuturists of the past, within literature, theory, music, culture, and or activism, further parallel the works in The Shadows Took Shape?
ZW: The enduring fascination with Afrofuturism is the myriad ways it can engage the past, present and future simultaneously.
Certainly Sun Ra (1914-1993) comes to mind first and foremost – and what he was doing in music, poetry, costume and stage design and experimental film pre-dates the term Afrofuturism.
Within literature, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler are two speculative fiction writers whose names are often invoked but there are many other talented writers including Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson and Colson Whitehead to name but three. Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist” is a favorite read of mine. As Naima’s essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue reveals, one can find evidence of Afrofuturist themes in late 19th and early 20th century fiction such as George Schuyler’s “Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free A.D. 1933–1940” from 1931.
You mention activism: Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) is an intriguing leader to think of in an Afrofuturist context.
TW: Would you agree that oppressed people, who are not of the African Diaspora can be Afrofuturists, or would you suggest that oppressed people explore escapism culture and research how their ethnicity relates to the concept versus latching on to Afrofuturism, as ultimately cultural nuances exist, so their experiences would not be the same as the Black American or African Diasporian experiences?
ZW: I don’t think the two positions you articulate are mutually exclusive, so in a sense I agree with both positions! Certainly cultural nuances and specificities exist: cultures aren’t interchangeable and our different experiences matter in the way they shape and define us. But cultures are frequently more interrelatable than we allow; common ground exists. I’ve spoken with a number of artists in the exhibition over the past year including Ellen Gallagher, Edgar Clejine, Harold Offeh, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour and Mehreen Murtaza about the notion of “accidental Afrofuturists.” I think it’s possible to be inspired by Afrofuturism and also to share certain aesthetic, socio-cultural and political concerns without necessarily having the Afro- background. In fact, some of the artists of African descent in the show have joked with me that they might also be accidental Afrofuturists because it’s part of who they are, an aspect of their practice but isn’t all they are.
Going back to your earlier question, this is one of the reasons the Studio Museum feels like such an apt site for the exhibition and the discourses it raises. I think it’s possible to claim Afrofuturism as an expansive source of agency and empowerment, to chart where else similar themes are being taken up and how. It’s affirming to present Afrofuturism as the rich source of creative inspiration that it is.
TW: Complete the statement: In the future Black is…
NK:… only a shade of color.
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: FEBRUARY 2, 2015
February James is the sort of name you’d give a bad ass girl band, who rivals Betty Davis, or a misunderstood leading lady, of the Nola Darling variety. She’s not quite the nasty gal, but she’s gotta have a penchant for wandering, and attracting women who are seemingly lost on their journeys of self-exploration. An ex-makeup artist, she has traded her skills of precisely covering up the flaws of women, while enhancing their features, for a chance to unearth truth through self-portraiture. Quasi-philosophical, mostly self-reflective, James explores mistakes, lays her fears and hopes on the table to be analyzed, and chats with Saint Heron on the contemporary cultural performance of curating lives online.
Saint Heron: Self-Portraiture is self-reflective; it is often depicted as a physical representation versus a mental one, why have you chosen to create the latter?
February James: Great question; to me, the physical is easy. It’s flesh. It’s weak. It’s without a mind. The physical can’t do a thing, which the mind doesn’t command it to do. That said, so is the mind, it’s weak, however both can be conditioned to be stronger BUT you can push the mind a lot further than you can push the body. I like a challenge. I love endurance. I’m all about growth and change; I need that. There is a certain shelf life, for the physical, it can be a bit one-dimensional. That’s why you never take a lover because of his or her beauty—beauty fades. There is always a constant battle, I believe, between the mind, the heart, the gut – these things control the body. The physical. There are no limits to what the mind can do. The mind is powerful and 97% of us don’t even use half of its true potential. Imagine that.
In a previous chapter of your life, you practiced as a professional makeup artist for fashion, print, entertainment, cinema and television. Whereas makeup artistry is often very precise, your artwork is loose. Has the familiarity of pigments and masking the flaws of individuals, while enhancing their notable features, shaped the way you navigate surfaces with oil pastels and mask the figures within your artwork?
You nailed it. My earlier work was very dark; I don’t even want to look at it. I was very rebellious in my art. I ran around saying, “I don’t like pretty,” LIES. I love me some pretty, I love decadent. I love opulence. I didn’t like what “Pretty” did to me and I didn’t know how to verbally express that at the time. I was afraid of what my truth would look like once I shared it with another. So I hid behind these dark pictures. Words hurt; words have all the power I give them. At the time, my relationship with words was immature, because I had relationships with people whose words were immature. Throwing words like daggers is easy, but I prefer a challenge. My earlier work involved a lot of realism, and it drove me crazy, perfection kept creeping in and it started to feel like work, and I don’t like to work, I like to create. I would sit down with a reference photo and try to draw it. It was very religious. I was nowhere in that process. After stumbling thru and becoming aware, I became more spiritual in my process. I begin to create. I worked from my intuition, and not my head. When I felt myself begin to ‘paint,’ I would stop immediately. I became patient with the time spent not creating. My most recent body of work, there is no myriad of things to collect before I start, no picking out colors ahead of time, no religion, no ritual. There is a pleasure in smudging the lips, distorting the nose, elongating the neck. I find solace in erasing my idea of perfection as it pertains to my art, and because of that I respect the discipline it takes to be an artist who works in realism.
The women in your oil pastel pieces are mirrors of the “things you’re running away from and all the things you’re hoping to become,” while lost, what unexpected journey did your artwork lead you to and what have you gained since being found [or hope to gain once found]?
Oh, I hope I’m never found, that’s the only way to endure the journey. To remain lost, to remain new, to embrace change rather than comforts. I’m running from being comfortable, complacent, sure of myself. I’m running from knowing too much, yet I aim to stay grounded in the truth. Like Forrest, I am RUN NING to love, to hope, to possibilities.
You are a very private person, curating exactly how much the public gets to see of you, just a glimpse of your hands if they’re lucky, but you share the fact that you’re a mother and have photographed your son. Why?
It’s not so much that I’m very private, I think people now a days are fooled by what’s been made public. The audience has become the author. If I get into how people design lives online, we get pulled in another direction. But I get it; apart from branding, I get it. But I’m ole school; I still own a record player. I’m open, very open, and at times too open. If you’re open too, and my work is self reflective, then you can see me out there naked for all to look at. I like mystery and wonder. I like surprises and I like to make surprises. Every now and then I’ll throw up a self-disguised selfie, if it lasts an entire day and you catch it, you’re a lucky one. I share my son because he’s been the best teacher I’ve ever had. Without words, he shows me how to have compassion, how to love, how to give, how to forgive, how to accept and acknowledge, how to slow down, how to be present and aware. What you learn you share, so I share him, he’s kind of cute too.
James Baldwin believed, “The role of the artist is the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” As an autodidactic artist, focusing on self-representation, self plays a huge role in your artistry. How do you remain cognitive and open to the world around you?
Awareness and Intuition. I work at this constantly. If I’m aware, and when I’m aware, I’m the best lover I can I ever have. At the end of the day, any interruption that I’ve had, if I didn’t walk away knowing myself a little better, then I’ve done myself a great disservice. I rewind moments of my day—constantly. Argh, I loathe clichés but here goes, if it’s been said the ones closet to us hurt us the most, what does that say about our relationship with ourselves? It starts with us. Some might interject here the role of a parent and child. My response would then be, conditioning. The child at some point becomes an adult. We’ve been conditioned to respect, honor and obey that relationship. With those three words you (have the ability to) shrink, each time you aim to defend who you are.
So the relationship becomes one of obedience and social niceties, rather than protecting yourself and walking away from what doesn’t serve you. Our intuitive voice is always there, but we don’t trust it. How can I go into a relationship with another if I’m afraid of my own voice? How can I walk out into the world confident and sure of myself, if I’m clothed in lies and disbeliefs about myself? If I’m honest with myself, then I can remain open to world around me. We ALL have both light and dark within us—there is no way around that—what we feed we grow. If I know that I can be a B-tch sometimes, you can’t take my power away by pointing that out to me. I’m human. Now, if I try to hide that fact, when the clock strikes 12 all goes to hell, and you point that out to me—I’m going to run from that. I make my own self a prisoner and I’ve got too many pairs of cute shoes to be locked up. I like to show up and show out sometimes.
If it is true that “we feed one another’s needs,” who are a few of your artistic influences, whose collected energy has seeped into your process or work? How has their connection fed your needs?
I have a relationship with words, but I’m impatient. I’d rather become pregnant with words, then give birth to them. That’s a process. There was a time where I was less successful at attracting the people who can raise the life, which I birthed with words. I was afraid of my words. I’m chronically misunderstood, looking to be understood. So simple, I’m complex. If I could make you understand, I’d be a poet. So I use color the way a linguist uses language. I paint faces because I’m small and needy, and looking to be understood. I need to connect; I need to release. So I guess, all of the vacant and absence I’ve attracted help speed up the process, it fed me and I found great artists along the way.
I love Gerhard Richter’s body of work; his ability to constantly transform his art and still keep (and grow) his audience, I’m into that. If I look up 20 years from now and all my life’s work resembles that same picture, over and over again, only changing in scale and dimension—I’m going to have a problem with that. Change is very important to me. I need to change. I need to grow as an individual. As an artist, I also need to see that I’ve grown. To me, that is the difference between approaching my work from a religious place verses a spiritual place. It’s a feeling, rather than a routine. It comes from a confident place (even though, when sharing creations I’m the most vulnerable) a place, maybe just on the boarder of fear, a place that says, “You may not get it,” “You may not understand it,” “I may lose you in the process,” but I have to do it anyway.
I get a euphoric feeling every time I see Retna’s work, I’m always trying to crack the code and I am extremely impressed by his brand. I admire Gregory Siff’s freedom and his ability to be loose. I love the air of light that surrounds Friends With You work. I’m fascinated by Banksy’s ability to remain invisible, because invisibility is a super power. I’m always equally impressed and intrigued by Toyin Odutola’s process. I adore the way Kenturah uses her relationship with words to design an image, then continues to develop the idea around the words. There is nothing that I wont love as it pertains to creation and creating. I love art: I love the process, I love the courage it takes to create and then share, I love to see one idea transform multiple times through new minds.
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: MARCH 16, 2015
Robert Pruitt, a contemporary griot, creates narratives via drawings, sculpture, and photography that the Signifying Monkey would be proud of. Layered in Black aesthetics and identity, Pruitt’s life-size figures become tricksters who tell tales through contrasting signs, poses, and dress. These Heroes and Heroines are everyday people, like us, who are masked in references to Science Fiction, Hip Hop, comic books, and Black political and social struggles.
Saint Heron: African Americans are oft considered ambiguous beings, as they are capable of shape shifting via the devices of code switching, signifying, pose [think Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask”], double-consciousness, etc. As an artist, using the traditional genre of portraiture, how do you pull back the layers of a pluralistic people, to depict who they were, who they are, and who they could be, to a society that has typified the Black body via imagery for hundreds of years?
Robert Pruitt: The most immediate way that I get at pluralism is through juxtaposition. All the different outfits, hairstyles, headdresses and other objects are intended to do just that. They create multiple entryways into each figure’s interior world. Each figure’s personal choices of dress and adornment are intended to help the viewer create a narrative about the figure.
I think a less noticeable way is through the use of time. Most of the works have some reference to the Past, Present and Future. A Victorian dress can be matched with an 80’s fade, or a pair of dunks and traditional sculptures from Africa can be used in space exploration. This idea is to collapse time. These figures exist in all times at once. I’ve always kind of felt that black folks more than anyone are troubled by time. We can be obsessed with trying to reconstruct our past from the fragments of information we have, while at the same time having to move on without any real sense of that past. I think sometimes we spend our lives moving between these two notions.
Each of your drawings seek to build the population of an alternate world, and each photograph seeks to record a royal family lineage, would you consider yourself an ethnographer since you study and record people and culture?
No, I don’t think I would call myself an ethnographer, but ethnography is definitely a large influence on the work. There are some connotations within ethnography that I hope I am shifting. The idea of a passive consumption of bodies and culture through ethnographic photography can be very worrisome to me, but it’s also one of the ways I have learned and observed a lot of info that I am referencing. I try to resolve this in my works by trying to give the subjects of the drawing a sense of agency. From using the gaze, to giving them weapons, to having them, at times, turn their backs to the camera. I like to think there is a bit of negotiation between the figure and viewer that is not often present in actual ethnographic imagery.
Last year you completed a residency at Tamarind Institute, what was your experience like? What did you learn from the process of translating your drawings into lithography?
Tamarind was really great! I completed a couple of prints, but the editions have not been produced yet. Really looking forward to them. I know very little about printmaking. I’ve always avoided it. I really skated out on it in undergrad. I prefer a more immediate way of working. It’s one of the reasons I make drawings. The process of drawing is instant and accessible. I’ve always imagined that viewers of my work could, on some level, understand how the work was created. I think there’s a mystery to painting and other forms of art making, that puts a bit of magical distance between the artist and viewer that I’m not too fond of. It creates a hierarchy of sorts. Anyway, Printmaking is one of those process-laden practices. The difference here was the team of people available. They allowed me to work in a way that was extremely comfortable, while they managed the actual printing process. This helped me really get an understanding of lithography that I hadn’t had before.
I’ve always wondered if you create your portraiture drawings on Kraft paper, as a historical reference to the brown paper bag test, or was using this medium just happenstance?
No, not really, I did choose that paper for it’s color and it’s resonance with brown skin, but not specifically referencing that paper bag test. I have actually discontinued using that paper, largely because I could not get a wide range of brown values from it. I have started to dye my own paper, using coffees, teas, and fabric dyes. This led to some unexpected results. Not just varying degrees of brown, but I started introducing a whole spectrum of colors: blues, greens, reds etc and more recently I just poured coffee directly on the paper to get a crazy series of stains and shapes as the background.
Let’s talk comics. You completed your first comic, “Fantastic Sagas,” with writer Mat Johnson in 2013. Does the same concepts within comic book subculture intrigue you as an adult, as it did during your adolescence? How has your consciousness expanded with reading and analyzing comics in adulthood?
I still read a lot of comics, yes. However, as an adult I can’t really consume them as passively as I did as a child. The number of characters of color is growing, but still dismal and even then, the stories are largely written through a set of Euro centric values and ideas. This has had the affect of me becoming a turnstile when it comes to reading comics. I still get excited about visiting comic book shops, and I buy a few and read for a few weeks and then I can’t stand it anymore. I seek out artists and characters of color, but I have not personally found enough to sustain a consistent reading practice.
Weaponry, as an ornamental headdress, was a dominant theme throughout your 2011 photographic body of work. Although the work was very much an ode to Black revolutionary culture, the weaponry and costuming seemed “un alarming” to most viewers and more distinguished, as in aristocratic, since it assimilated Colonial European portraiture. Were the photographs employing the trickster device of signifying? If so, what was the narrative of this royal, Black revolutionary, family’s lineage signifying?
Right, you hit the nail on the head. I wanted to create this lineage of black, matriarchal, power, expressed through portraiture. The guns could operate as “un-alarming” because they are meant to be defensive as opposed to offensive. Black Self defense has had a tumultuous public presence. Black people are not really allowed to be defensive. Here, the weapons are so passively placed that they can almost seem disarming. Still, those are violent objects.
The signifying would be the correlating of Western aristocracy with that level of embedded violence. I don’t often make references to Western cultures in my work but here, because of the history of photography and portraiture that I am working from, it was sort of unavoidable. I would hope the viewer would read these images as not only an “ode” to black power, but also read the form as Western and a nod to the violence and power within those forms.
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 11, 2015
Toyin Ojih Odutola is all about inclusion. Whether it is placing her maternal lineage in the middle of her signature or cleverly placing a mirror to the viewer’s socio-cultural ideals, as they stare at her works, in her current exhibition “Of Context and Without.” Wise beyond her years, and very needed at this time, Toyin spoke with Saint Heron on the mercuriality of humans becoming, the fluidity of the term identity and the perception of Blackness.
Tanekeya Word [TW]: The documentation of process has always been a dominant concept in your art-making. In The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object, 2015, you have decided to allow the first layer of your process to be seen as the final marks. Why?
Toyin Ojih Odutola [TOO]: For this show, “Of Context and Without,” I wanted to expose process, as in the process of a read—be it a person, a thing, or a situation. It wasn’t only in the marker pieces, such as The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object, 2015, but in the charcoal, pen ink, and pencil works in the show as well. I’ve been interested in this notion that the completed end-product can be misleading, because to see something as “done” assumes a one-dimensionality. By intentionally by-passing that final, finished layer, what is revealed is not an incompleteness, but rather an evolving state. Thusly, to apply this to the arena of portraiture, you see that the work isn’t about a subject or a person, specifically, at all, but about the makings of a person, the makings of an idea. That was what I was getting at, and that is what I’ve often shared in my documentation of process in the past, only in this case, I’m not attempting to capture these stages of making for posterity or even for educational purposes. I wanted to leave something in this “undone” state to see what it would mean. I’m still trying to figure it out—and that is so refreshing! To have a body of work that eludes definition or rather anything definitive. Being an artist with a very specific identity—Black, Woman—there is often this need to sweep it over, to make a decisive point and move on (I’m not speaking simply of my own desires, but the social implications in this as well). It’s an exhausting exercise and an exhausting experience. So, what happens when you present yourself, in-process, as a portrait (speaking of The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object, 2015, again)? What does it mean when the read isn’t as definitive and instead is multifaceted and nebulous, even mercurial? That is what I wanted to explore and emphasize with the works in “Of Context and Without.”
TW: In your exploration of race and identity, is the process of layers and markings in your work a path to navigate the metanarratives associated with people, to excavate the character behind the person instead of just the perception of the monolithic body, whether it is a black body, a woman, a man?
TOO: In some way or form, I’ve always wanted to reveal the lie of the monolith with my drawings. From my very first solo exhibition with Jack Shainman, titled “(MAPS),” 2011, to my last exhibition, “Like the Sea,” 2014, each iteration has been a means of emphasizing the unreliability of the singular portrait packed with “readymade” attributes. I’ve always been suspicious of an exacting persona, even when I’ve tried to achieve it in myself. It’s not like I’m exposing anything new or revolutionary. What I am doing with my drawings is playing with this shaky idea that you, me, and everybody else can only be one thing and will always be one thing. Identity, as a word, frustrates me, because its very purpose is to limit possibilities, to limit capabilities. You cannot limit something that is changeable: as human beings, of nature, we are by default changeable. It’s the most reliable thing about us, our mercurialness, next in line to our forgetfulness. In sum, I want to express how there will never be one answer to anything or anyone. So I build upon that, literally with the marks I make, to expose the lie of the monolith and, ultimately, to expose the lie we believe in some way or another, within ourselves.
TW: The quote seen in your latest exhibition, Of Context and Without press release states, “In art theory, the line orders and controls while color is pure freedom and emotion,” the statement immediately made me think of our present day socio-cultural and socio-political order in the United States. Lines are implicitly drawn to create social order, but depending on the context or perception it could be considered that the lines are elusive when it comes to the freedom of the black body and the emotions society has pertaining to it. How would you contextualize or perceive the rhetoric used in this particular art theoretical statement, in relation to present day socio-cultural and socio-political happenings?
TOO: The vulnerability of minority bodies makes plain how the societal delineations that we constantly live by are false and, of course, it’s always about control. I like to play with the dynamic, of our knowledge of these lines, because sometimes it feels like they are invisible, or made difficult to pin-point. The irony is that we all know they exist and they are meant to push and pull us to whichever dynamics are convenient for the powers in place. But what an exciting moment when we expose these lines and everyone sees how misleading and unhealthy the partitions made on and by us are? As an artist, I have always looked at art-making as a means to not simply play with the rhetoric, but to play with perceptions. You can stand in one space all your life and feel like that space is all there is and all the other spaces around you are out of reach or too foreign to venture into. My job is to get you out of that confined space to another vantage point. It’s amazing what happens when we travel to another “locale,” how our perceptions of the world change immediately, just by shifting our purview by a few degrees. As a kid, I grew up with the shade of “recent immigrant” as my space. That space came with many restrictions as well as allowances; however, I often felt like I could never be more that what was allotted to me and my family in that very specified, and inhibiting territory. It wasn’t until I became a US citizen in adulthood that I realized what it meant to shift somewhat more freely and to actually feel the privileges that weren’t available to me (or even acknowledged by me) when I was a child. To take it a step further, living in this Black body all my life, I felt there were margins I couldn’t quite cross, spaces I wasn’t welcome into, &c.—this found its way into my earlier works a few years ago. The moment I dared to mess with those delineations, even when I was scared to do so, I was exposed to the illusions in place that I internalized and it was so freeing to see…possibility. To feel like I could invent and roam in a terrain that wasn’t already demarcated for or prescribed to me by someone else, or society at large. In the end, what I seek as an artist is what I seek in life, to expand in order to move about more freely, without the fear of retraction.
TW: The Treatment, 2015 is a series of drawings that challenges the viewer’s ideologies and how easy or how difficult it may be to “resist categorization,” when the images confuse the physical and social political identities that they have grown to accept or deny based on skin color. The Treatment, in return becomes a social case study, utilizing visual culture. I am reminded of Brer Rabbit and the trickster trope when reading these particular images. When you were asked why you only drew people of the African Diaspora, your response to the question was this body of work. What if anything were you signifying in this series?
TOO: Blackness as a construct is a negation, it instantly obfuscates and devalues who and whatever is washed over by it. It denies complexity and in turn denies explanation. In essence, it flattens. This is not an aesthetic read, this connotes the socio-political as well. We have tried to reclaim it, to give it power with such beauty, eloquence and strength, but the truth is that those who don Blackness do not do so by choice, nor were we ever the creators of this construct. I am attracted to Blackness as a concept because I want to usurp it. I see within it a multitude of reads. I understand how it is complicit in creating frustrating impenetrability however it is presented—as a tool, as a marker—but I also can see how it can be utilized for play. Because I so often work with it as a material (i.e. in material and concept), I try to expand it as well as create tension within it. I hope to unearth the contradictions inherent in it. As it is with so many other things created by human beings, there is bound to be complications regardless of how we try to rationalize Blackness. For me, “The Treatment,” as a series in its entirety, was an attempt to play the jester, but also to attack a perception that continues to confound me personally. The moment I landed in this country, I was Black. That happened, just like that. And all the history and associations attached to that Blackness were laid upon me. At first, as a young person, I thought it strange and unsettling, because obviously, I am brown-skinned in tone, but even as a kid I realized what that Blackness meant: what it did to control how I moved about the world and how my actions and words would be defined. The puzzlement led to my wanting to “treat” it differently. And when the premise of the group exhibition, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” curated by Hank Willis Thomas, was introduced to me, I immediately thought: “I have played with this platform on Black figures as an arena for me to explore my issues with Blackness as a construct, but rarely, if ever, have I devoted an entire body of work to Whiteness in this same method?” What would that mean? What would it bring out of me and my methodology as a whole? I won’t deny it, I did approach the series with trepidation, but I was also excited about what the series would mean to me on a personal level. This idea that Blackness is so specified and thusly often excluded, when in fact, Blackness is the most inclusive of colors (and, by extension, concept). It is the Whiteness, in opposition, that is impenetrable, that avoids and becomes exclusive by it’s very quality. These constructs confound one other and the problem no longer felt over-simplified, it started to become multilayered—and that is what really excited me enough to proceed.
TW: 2016 is approaching. What five things have you taken from your experiences in 2015 that will anchor you to stay focused and encouraged in the coming year?
1. To travel extensively is the greatest gift, even if it’s only a few miles from your locale. The moment you leave the space you are comfortable inhabiting, you come to face your real self in different situations, and it is so revealing, humbling, arresting and beautiful.
2. Experimenting with one’s work is a necessity. It’s not about pushing oneself for the sake of it only, rather, its about tackling the things you are most afraid of —acknowledging the fear and proceeding. It’s the fear that instructs and from there so much can happen. It’s the catalyst.
3. Thank goodness for music–no matter the genre. There have been so many nights that wouldn’t have been as productive if not for a soundtrack to keep me going, to motivate, to inspire. I’m so thankful for it.
4. I am so grateful to my family and all my friends for their support this year. 2015 has been full of so much (and it’s not even over), but without those people so dear around me, it would all be for naught. I am so indebted to everyone. I truly am.
5. Confidence. One thing I learned this year more than anything else is to be more confident in myself as a person. In the past, I often felt that what I did, my art-making, is what defined me and all my self worth and significance stood on that. It’s not a healthy outlook. Sometimes you need to escape from what you do (and even who you are attached to) to truly appreciate your purpose. I’m not here to say I know myself completely, but what I’ve discovered this year has allowed me to imagine the possibilities and to understand that my way of seeing the world, my way of being and experiencing it, as well as expressing myself within in–in this body, with this mind–is important on it’s own. And that was really integral to my development towards fulfilled personhood in 2015.
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
BY TANEKEYA WORD | PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER 14, 2016
Spanning 30 years in the art world, creating and exhibiting art, Lorna Simpson champions the freedom of identity: race, sexuality and gender. Much like Prince, one may wonder if there isn’t an art medium that she cannot master. Photographer, Collagist, Painter, Filmmaker, Illustrator, and yes the list goes on. Over the summer, we chatted with Lorna about her current solo exhibition at Salon 94 in New York, black hair, identity, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Ocean, Common and social fragmentation in the U.S.
Tanekeya Word [TW]: For many women, hair is their crowning glory and therefore makes up a substantial part of their identity. As black women, our hair is often seen as a form of resistance [in its natural state] or assimilation [in a straightened state or extension state]. How has the politics of beauty, with attention to hair as a player, informed your works, such as the Works on Paper series that appears in the publication the Aspen Art Museum?
Lorna Simpson [LS]: The way black women invent and reinvent their look in terms of their hair is a very powerful thing that I don’t feel that there needs any kind of societal or self regulation. There is a kind of cultural agency in having control over one’s appearance. I remember my mom, in the late ’60s, when we were visiting her family in Chicago and she had long hair that she would either get straightened or not. But one day while we were traveling, I came back from swimming and she had gone to a Jimi Hendrix concert (clearly I was too little to know who Hendrix was…) and came back hours later with an Afro, and I remember being kind of surprised. As a small child it is a surprise when a parent changes their appearance. As in one of my earliest childhood memories, I didn’t recognize my father when he shaved his mustache, but that day with my mom, I remember she rebuffed any opinion that was offered about her hair and was indignant about having to consider any expectation about having a conversation before her decision or after with other family members. “This is my hair and I can do whatever I want with it, I can cut it off or do whatever I want,” she said. Also, it was a statement, at that time whether she had an Afro or straight hair and the assumptions made about her. I think I kind of remember like, ‘Go on wit yo’ bad self,’ [laughs] as a child and remember feeling ‘I didn’t say anything was wrong, I just said you looked different’ [laughs]. So, from my own personal experiences, yes, and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and even the ’80s. Watching TV and black broadcasters in the ’70s whose appearance had to conform to certain styles and how those styles shifted or even in Washington, D.C. in the mid to late ’80s, when I got out of graduate school, and working at the NEA there were all these government rules about cornrows and how braids were inappropriate. I remember being shocked by that. In more conservative work environments, it was very contentious and probably still to this day. I am sure to some degree there are still some assumptions about business attire and hair choices made by women of color. All that said, yes it does filter down to everybody’s day to day in terms of appearance and reactions to one’s appearance. I think it’s important that women acknowledge their agency—and they can choose to look however they want. To assume whatever, range of choices from femininity, masculinity to androgyny that they choose, and whether their hair that’s straight or curly or braided or shaved is up to them.
In some ways for the works that are Works on Paper, it was more of a fantastic exploration of using these things that they become almost unreal in a way rather than a kind of literal depiction of style but a transformative, fantastical effect with using inks.
TW: What is your correlation with identity and the process of collage, drawing, photography and film? Is it different with each medium? How has each technique influenced the way you approach artistic cultural production?
LS: I have the ideas for something, and the medium chooses me. Meaning the idea kind of fuels how the work gets made. I don’t think I come to the process of making work with a larger framework of a political position that I want it to fulfill. It’s not that prescribed. It’s more these ideas that come that I find of interest in a way that they speak to me, but not in that over arching way. If the project is on video or film or if a project ends up being a painting or a series of photographs it’s more of what was the inspiration that led me to that idea that then suggests the medium.
TW: You are also collaborating with Common. Can you tell us more about the project and what fueled your collaboration with him?
LS: A few months ago, Common and his team were researching images and art for his new album, and my name came up. Instead of what usually happens within the music industry, which some version of an artist’s work is immediately appropriated, he asked that they contact me directly to talk about the possibility of collaborating and creating artwork for his new releases. So, to my surprise a call came requesting if I would consider the opportunity.
What transpired was listening to the music for the new album and conversations with Common about direction from different bodies of work, as a starting point, and just working through proposals and concepts until we landed on what worked. I am a huge fan, and it was amazing to work with him.
TW: What have you learned via the process of creating the works for your current exhibition? How has the knowledge changed you?
LS: I think this time around my work has evolved from a contemplative space of allowing myself time to work through many ideas and slowing things down. This period of my life has shifted and broadened the range of emotional responses that I had while working. I think in the past, I would be more controlled emotionally in the studio and this time the studio became my safe haven. Thus, listening to the news and crying and listening to Frank Ocean while I figure some stuff out is the tone of the day. I feel that giving myself the space to work in the raw, emotionally and intellectually, is important.
TW: How does this solo exhibition confront the political and social fragmentation that is happening here in the U.S.?
LS: In making new work, I have to allow for the tenor of my day emotions to have a role in the work that I made. I have, as have many in this country, witnessed the unrelenting day to day tyranny of police brutality, violent killings, a broad spectrum racist and homophobic commentary, and families in mourning. For me personally, there was no way that these issues at this moment would not be present in the work.
TW: “Enumerated, 2016” is a powerful piece that can be read many ways. What are you mentioning, one by one, via the tally marks created of nails?
LS: I feel that be it personal events and situations, I am counting the days until resolution or watching the news or social media and counting the frequency and repetitions of racial remarks or targeted violence. That level of enumeration and emotional response is heightened and palatable on a day to day level. I am still counting.