‘I paint in exchange for freedom’ | Artistic Influences
Since my last post, I've been doing a lot of research and experimentation regarding all of my thoughts. There were many factors that contributed towards my first draft:
An audio version of this is available. Part 1 here:
1. Kara Walker & Fons Americanus
There's been a bit of noise in the art world about Walker's new piece on show at Tate Modern. Fons Americanus isn't too different from Kara's other work: this almost irreverent, cynical mood seems to cloud the things she makes. I remember first being introduced to her and being surprised by her decisions. The exaggerated silhouettes that remind me of racist cartoons, and the distressing and heavy subject matter can make for some disturbing work. But I also find that I love that about her work. Her cynical recreations of very real scenarios do something for me. It screams frustration and bitterness and helplessness. It joins in on racist laughter in a way that makes racists uncomfortable - or so I thought. It doesn't laugh, it cackles; it rasps.
But as much as I appreciate irreverence - I can understand why a Black American Woman wouldn't deem much as "sacred" - I still believe that it should come from an informed place. Otherwise, it doesn't really strike me as irreverence. It just looks like the person is uninformed and doesn't mind. So when Kara said that to her, the UK 'always seemed a fairly advanced place to be. To be Black and British and get a good education and have a good vocabulary and not have this legacy of systemic violence and educational and economic oppression.' If you wanna see how I feel about Britain's alleged lack of systemic violence etc. then read my first post, 'Britain is a white space'.
Rianna Jade Parker does a brilliant job of explaining exactly why this cheapens Walker's work, making her out to be the unreliable narrator she professes to be. To acknowledge that something is there, and then actively refuse to respect it is different from basing your disrespect on rumours and the rejection of facts. In my first draft, I'd say that Kara Walker's influence is clearly present. It's just unfortunate that she is so wilfully ignorant of the subject matter she chose to tackle in Fons Americanus.
2. Denzil Forrester and Itchin & Scratchin
Denzil’s work at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery really stood out to me because of the use of patterns and ambiguous figures. In my work, I tend to remove the eyes from my photographs because it isn’t the identity of that particular subject that I am commenting on. The model or subject I’m shooting tends to be a representation of something bigger or more abstract.
With Forrester, his pictures probably have that ‘ambiguous effect’ because of how fast he had to draw them. Back in the 1970s, he would draw what he saw in East London’s dub-reggae clubs. so you can imagine he had to draw mad quickly, recreating multiple scenes as they happened. But the great thing about it was that he could easily capture the energy of the dancing through the shadowy figures and “messy” brush strokes. Personally, I love messy brush strokes – maybe because art informs life and vice versa, and if that is the case, most art should be messy.
Anyway, the Grenadian artist presented Itchin & Scratchin after visiting Kingston for the first time last year, taking a break from his usual focus of the Afro-Caribbean experience in Britain. It’s really made me want to capture movement in still image really – I think because I’m looking at chaos, or at least aesthetic chaos. Chaos doesn’t strike me as something static – how is stillness chaotic?
3. Thais Silva, or @blackcollage_
Thais Silva is a graphic designer I stumbled across on Instagram, and though she may not be a conventional fine artist, I found a lot of inspiration in her work. She has very little information about herself from what I saw on her social media, but I deduced that she’s from Brazil.
Her work stood out to me because of how she integrates humans with nature in her work through collages. I’m very interested in developing from The Right to Opacity with collages because I think that layering can lend to the chaos. As I mentioned in the last post, chaos is made up of fractals, and once you see that, you find that chaos isn’t as “chaotic” or arbitrary as it may seem. One of my favourite examples of her work is ‘rio’ or ‘River’, because it places the river within the head of the subject, and separates the face as a type of mask. The use of red makes the river look like blood, relating further to our water-prominent bodies. But also there are a few black lines and swirls drawn on the “mask” face that really stood out to me. It’s made me start thinking of taking things a step further and drawing on my portraits more prominently than I did in The Right to Opacity.
Once again, this is another person I found on Instagram. She appears to be more of a print maker than an artist, but her work strikes me as a sober version of Temi Coker’s bubblegum graphic design. That’s not an insult by the way. I just mean that Temi’s work exudes an artificial brightness that will ABSOLUTELY be absent from my work. Even though chaos can be bright and colourful, using colour in this way will likely take away from the seriousness of my work. As I said when I was working on TRTO, I want people to be uncomfortable when they see my work. My work doesn’t come from a place of joy or fulfilment, if you get what I mean, and so if people feel joyful looking at my work, I’d probably feel insulted. @gldeng6rl is able to sober up her designs with more muted colour palettes, and… removing the eyes. I didn’t realise the removal of the eyes was so common in art and even graphic design. I won’t even be looking for it and I’ll find it. If anything, it makes me confused as to how TRTO was received last year. I didn’t appear to do much out of the ordinary, if you will.
But yes, @gldeng6rl incorporates “bodies” – literally limbs, disembodied heads, etc. – into nature, similarly to Thais Silva. Though I like a lot of her work, ‘Watcher’ is along the lines of what I want to achieve. This three-headed Black Woman looking down from the sky at a humble boat, her modesty covered by an iceberg; a halo around the back of her heads; embraced by flowers. It’s almost like something you’d see on an afrofuturist mural or tapestry. It’s clearly not “normal” (three heads), and though there’s a level of discomfort based on how the faces have been arranged (and the darkening of the eyes), it looks ethereal. A divinity is given to it through the halo, and even the planet-like rings circling around two of the heads. It’s gorgeous. I’ve reached out to her because there is very little information available on her social media. It’d be nice to have a name, and if not that, some insight into her decision-making.
Delphine Diallo reminds me of Lina Iris Viktor in that she is actively inspired by anthropology, mythology, religion, science and martial arts. The bio on her website says that ‘where ever she can, Diallo combines artistry with activism, pushing the many possibilities of empowering women, youth and cultural minorities through visual provocation.’ Now, though I don’t believe in shock value or sensationalism in my work, I do believe in visual provocation. That being said, her work doesn’t “provoke” me to do anything other than admire the little decisions she made in her photography.
Other than photography, she is a collagist, and uses VR technology and 3D printing in her work. Two examples of her work stand out to me – ‘AWAKE’ and ‘THE DNA ORIGIN’. Staring with THE DNA ORIGIN, I like how a helix has been created in the model’s hair using braids. It’s an effective artistic decision that also retains cultural value – yes, it is commonly known that human life as we know it started in Africa, but it also portrays Blackness as aesthetically-pleasing art: the braids, the dark skin, the [stereotypically] Afrocentric features. It isn’t messy or chaotic. It’s calm and still, and rather simple in its effectiveness.
AWAKE differs in this sense. The model is painted – or edited to look – blue. Though her back is to the camera, her head has turned to face it. Unlike TDO, she looks straight into the camera – I suppose in a way that would provoke. Diallo has layered another picture on top of it and reduced its opacity. The background is dark, and we can’t quite see the subject as clearly as we can in TDO. As I type I’ve managed to convince myself that this is a portrayal of chaos – almost as if AWAKE is mankind’s beginning, and THE DNA ORIGIN is what we have once the dust has settled. This portrayal of movement, similarly to Denzil Forrester, is something I want to adopt in my work. As I work with photoshop a lot, it’ll be a lot easier to portray movement like how Diallo has, other than Forrester who draws (I hardly draw).
Stacie paints with acrylics, and, like quite a few artists on this list, is self-taught. She’s all about celebrating African American women and promoting positive narratives about them, which is both a noble and arduous task. Monday deconstructs negative stereotypes of Black Women, addressing vulnerable fragments of our femininity that is often ignored.
SIDE NOTE: Don’t ask me about Black Women and femininity because I will likely talk your ear off. To summarise, in a society that positions Blackness as Masculine, and “Yellowness” as Feminine, Black Women will always come across as not-quite-a-woman (masculine, butch, angry, aggressive), and Asian men will always come across as not-quite-a-man (feminine, timid, shy, weak). It’s also likely why these two demographics are the least sought for on dating apps. It’s a little sh*t but like everything, there’s a reason for it.
Monday has inspired the name of this post: ‘I struggle with expressing my thought and experiences in other ways, therefore I paint in exchange for freedom.’ I relate because I’m not the most extroverted person. I think I said it in the previous post, but most of my articulations are made in the work I produce whether it be visual art (photography/photography-based practices & film) or written art (prose).
Personally, I absolutely adore Monday’s ‘The Concept of Identity’ series. Check it out – I think it’s on her website, but if not, here’s her Instagram account. Not that I have to tell you, but eyes aren’t present in this series – in fact the entire top of the head isn’t present. It’s replaced by what might look like chaotic brush strokes at first glance. Upon looking closer, there are maps and documentation pertaining to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Monday is asking how we define and place ourselves, and what that even means in the context of such displacement. It’s something that is very true, not just for African American Women, but for Black Women in general. I’ve said many times that no Black person on earth hasn’t been affected by the legacy of slavery and colonisation. Even if one lives in a remote area, like the Maasai, it is only your tiny spot of land that is safe, and even then, is it? How many white people (and Black Westerners) force themselves into such spaces to participate in “fun tribal cultures” and take pictures?
SIDE NOTE: It’s so disrespectful that I’m unsure if I can articulate it in a non-profane way. I honestly don’t care if the Maasai are alright with it or not, because as I said before, they aren’t operating within the context of white supremacy. As far as I know, they don’t know that they’re being treated as a gimmick by people entitled to consume [and potentially appropriate] their culture. If they did, I can’t believe that they would let it continue. So even in these isolationist cultures, the legacy of colonialism and slavery has forced its way in.
The Concept of Identity really moves me for this reason. It doesn’t matter how self-aware I am, a huge portion of who I am is defined by my ancestors’ displacement. I am Jamaican in heritage because slavery happened. I am British in nationality because colonisation happened [- just for Britain to start revoking citizenship from the children of the Windrush Generation. Two “deportation flights” this February alone]. So if you find me generally irreverent towards Britain, I’m sure you can work out why. But I’ve already spoke about this at length in previous posts.
Monday uses dark colours like navy, green, and brown. None of the faces she has painted appear to be smiling either, so maybe they’re supposed to be coming to terms with the state of their identity. It’s both sobering and angering, and for that, Stacie Monday is one of my favourite artists on this list.
Even though Love is a South African commercial photographer, I find that his use of patterns, repetition and colour is quite effective in building imagery often seen in fine art. He often uses the human body in its naked form, which I’m finding myself drawn to because of its minimalist nature. After all, where do clothes fit in when blending human beings into the nature around them? Most of the pictures I’ve chosen for reference use colour, but rein it back a bit. Love really seems to love the use of yellow. Seeing yellowish-brown (corduroy?) hats atop the heads of men with rich, dark skin; or the gold chains draped over a Black man’s face reminds me a bit of the gold/yellow borders I drew around the eyes in TRTO, so maybe that is why I was drawn to his photography.
I found out about Faith Natocho when a peer of mine went to Kenya to visit his family and see some of the artwork being produced there. He captured a lot of it on social media, and I was instantly drawn to Natocho’s work. Natocho is a Kenyan sketch artist and sculptor. Inspired by higher consciousness, and abiding by the theme of ‘recycle and reprogram’, she exhibited her work at 7 Days in November at The Love Studio in Nairobi. ‘The legs illustrate what it would be like to get into yourself and let go of ego, bias, pride, selfishness… and try to gain a more universal perspective on life through love,’ resulting in ‘a new awareness where we have an understanding of self, nature, reality and spirituality that is within that.’ Ultimately, I liked that she’d made a cast of her legs using plastic (it looks like tape) and hung it from the ceiling. Though plastic isn’t the most environmentally-friendly material to be creating art with, I like how accessible her approach was – most homes have some form of tape and can begin emulating her work.
The legs hanging from the ceiling reminded me of quicksand initially, but when she mentioned her interest in higher consciousness, I instantly thought “celestial bodies”. It brought up stories I’d heard as a kid of Jesus and His disciples being able to get out of predicaments supernaturally. Sometimes Jesus would be amongst the people and they just wouldn’t know He was there, and I think Phillip actually teleported at one point! To be able to ascend and fly away, or go through walls and floors, AS WELL AS the fact that the legs do not have a racial signifier (or toes,) really associated Natocho’s sculpture with divinity for me. Similarly to @gldeng6rl, it could be a bit jarring or strange at first glance, but with time, effortlessly communicates something ethereal.
Kahraman is an Iraqi refugee who explores the body ‘as object and subject.’ through sculpting and painting and sketching. From what I’ve seen, she only draws women, so this makes sense. This depiction of women as objectified is magnificent in her exhibition last year called Not Quite Human. As I mentioned when talking about Stacie Monday, Black Women – especially dark-skinned Black Women – are seldom seen as women in a society that masculinises (and straight up animalises) Blackness. If Black Women aren’t quite women (once again, in this context, womanhood is synonymous with white womanhood, an aesthetic that declares “real women” as delicate, sensitive, weak, small, and infantile), and if Black Women aren’t quite men (Black Women still experience sexism and misogyny at the hands of both Black and non-Black people), then Black Women are inherently queer (this is a theory I’ve heard before but I can’t remember where so I cannot cite it right now). Before we had language to describe Black Women as inherently queer, we were just Not Quite Human.
Hayv constructs femininity in an uncanny way: the porcelain skin, glassy eyes, and distorted poses tell us that there is something off about these women. In one image I’ve included, the women are stacked on top of each other, like chairs being stored in a room. Connotations of emotional labour, objectification, and generational trauma are evoked.
10. Tawny Chatmon
Chatmon is a Tokyo-born, photography-based artist. With her discipline, photographs act as a base for everything else: gold leaf, paint, digital collage and illustration, or what she calls a ‘compositional expression’.
Her collection ‘A Beautiful Struggle: Black Feminist Futurism’ is self-explanatory in the ideas it integrates. Chatmon wishes to highlight ‘Black women’s experiences without blatant representations of oppression [ensuring that] Black women’s self-identities are centred, rather than explored in a responsive way.’ This sounds like what a friend described as ‘Afro-Bubblegum’. But Chatmon’s work is beautiful, though I feel that Stacie Monday is better able to show the pain in Blackness without it being sensationalist.
However, two pictures from this collection stand out to me. ‘Covered Gold’, and ‘Redemption/Saint Michael George III’. I love the detail in these works (reminiscent of Lina Iris Viktor’s work with gold leaf), plus the use of Black figures to evoke sainthood. As I type I’m really coming to terms with how common these motifs and aesthetics catch my eye. ‘Covered Gold’ appears to depict two girls cloaked in a black veil of sorts. It reminds me of the veils that accompany the sarees worn in South Asian culture. If I had to associate it with one word, it would be “regal” in a way that doesn’t push it in your face. Though the first girl is quite confident in expression and stance, the second girl obscures herself from the audience’s gaze a bit more. Her expression is unsure. I like how it reminds me of sisterhood.
And then there’s ‘The Redemption/Saint Michael George III’, which, based on its name is exploring what I also saw in ‘Covered Gold’. This is a young boy with tears rolling down his face, but gold has been added into the picture, adorning his clothes and face. Once again, the detail on his clothes is astounding. The gold on his face is in the form of a wreath with tassels, which was a nice departure from the commonly drawn crown. In the Black community – particularly the Black American community, there is a lot of use of the words ‘Kings and Queens’ to describe one another, however it has been co-opted and subsequently cheapened. The first thing that comes to mind is H&M’s horribly tone deaf children’s shirt titled ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’, and the added problem with modelling it on a Black boy. Rachel Dolezal (Brand Ambassador of Cultural Appropriation) decided to make her own tone-deaf design: ‘Coolest King in the Hood’. I feel like the reaction I had to Dolezal’s graphic design would be replicated in Chatmon’s work had she not gone for a different style crown. It was a smart choice, and allows me as an audience member to focus on the connotations of sainthood and royal-ness, rather than “Hoteps” and tone-deaf performativism.
11. Jenia Weischel
Weischel is a Tajikistan-born artist, specialising in Giclee prints. I stumbled across an unnamed work she posted on Instagram as a sponsored post. I love the Black figures looking at one another, their bodies blending into the landscape she has created. The second figure is part of the night sky, and, well yeah, it kind of reminds me of the quote ‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ This communion between ourselves as displaced Black people and literal stardust; between a demographic oppressed because of our skin tone, and the essence of the universe. It’s powerful and poignant, but in a bittersweet way.
However, Weischel’s choice to use the #primitivism hashtag on the post was tone-deaf in my opinion. From what I saw, she didn’t use this hashtag on her other posts, including works of a similar style. It was bizarre to me, and distracted from the beauty of her work.
To summarise, I will be looking at the 1981 Handsworth Riots for my research in practice, asking the question of what happened the year before? What small fractals led to the carnage that ensued? And for my artistic response, I will be looking more generally at resistance and frustration.
Moving forward, I need to make sure that what I’m addressing in my research in practice is covering new ground. If I’m to conduct academic research (using documentaries and films, journals and books, archives, art and exhibitions…), it makes sense to look at something that hasn’t really been covered. So I need to do some research on the work that already exists around the Handsworth Riots. Even though I may not be able to view the contents of these articles, Google Scholar should be quite helpful in finding what is out there. But also academics with a vested interest in Black communities, like Dr Lisa Palmer, Dr Shawn Sobers, and Dr Joy White, for example. Reaching out to them for assistance will allow me to cover more ground, and I plan on doing that in the near future. I also need to visit some exhibitions – namely the Birmingham Revolutions one at BMAG, but maybe also Sonia Boyce since her work is literally in the city right now. That being said, I think the exhibitions I look at should probably be more specific to the Handsworth Riots for my research in practice. I have a lot of sources and inspirations for my response, and as I continue to create and engage with content, I will likely find more. And I really, really need to start creating a first draft. In the studio I share, my colleagues have filled the space with their art. I’m feeling a little left behind, and it’s especially bad since one of them offered up some of their space for me to begin putting up some of my drafts. I have no drafts. So I really need to get a move on.