"Beyond Simple Equations"
"Beyond Simple Equations" was my senior thesis project from college and it was an investigation into the role and function of “political art.” I’ve always believed that social change requires a leap in the imagination, a process of pure invention; processes which artistic creation can help to articulate and inform.
Most of my intellectual and academic work as an Africana Studies concentrator had been about challenging dominant constructions of power and knowledge as a means of imaging new possibilities for our world. Given my passion for painting and my concerns as an activist, I attempted to develop a body of work that gave voice and face to alternative ways of understanding the social political reality of U.S. society.
I chose the terrain of “race politics” as my subject matter, as a means of examining and challenging power. It is from this terrain that I derived the title for my project; how can we go beyond the simple equations of racial progress, representation, and justice that have been imposed on us in dominant discourse? The question is overwhelming in its scope; my project is a humble attempt to chip away at a small piece of an infinitely complex puzzle.
This piece questions the position of political art in the exclusive realm of the museum or gallery. How does the viewer become a passive spectator when confronted with depictions of atrocity in a sterile, detached space? Does “political art,” art that is meant to be a critique or commentary on power, lose its purpose once it is commodified as an object on a museum wall? I have inserted myself in the museum both as a character contained in the canvas and as an active dissenter.
In challenging the “City on a Hill” myth by inserting a Black experience, a representation of the Middle Passage, I have hopefully opened up new questions to consider in evaluating the foundation of this country’s history.
A central component of my project was the development of this visual vocabulary, a repertoire of motifs that I used to construct more involved pieces. I was able to build this vocabulary through making a whole body of little paints, most of them not exceeding 1 ft x 1 ft.
The white house, for example, became one particular motif that I have used over again, both for its straightforward symbolic significance as a representation of state power, as well as for its more formal connotations as a white physical structure. The various white houses in my paintings are generally situated in—and sometimes causing—different manifestations of crisis, whether drowning in a sea of blood and water or in an apocalyptic moment of decomposition.
These small paintings provided the space for experimentation with the materiality of the paint. The spontaneous, rapid process of creation allowed me to encapsulate raw emotion and movement. Scratching and wipe outs entered into my catalogue of mark-making as new tools for giving the paint a militant voice.
Some of these motifs emerged as a result of my first thoughts at the beginning of the project, which were dedicated to Katrina and all the unnatural disasters and contradictions that Katrina brought to the surface in this country. The destruction and devastation which came to the communities of New Orleans not only because of the wind and rain brought by the weather patterns of a hurricane, but by a system of power build on a logic of white supremacy and entrenched inequality.
Unnatural Disaster was a culminating piece in contemplation on Hurricane Katrina. In this work I further experimented with the use of thick paint, with scratching and with scraping. It is a deeply emotional painting; the process of its creation was a reflection on the anger, hurt, confusion, and violence that emanates from the eye of the ugly, man-made storms of the world.
This piece asks similar questions to Unnatural Disaster, but also hones in specifically on formulations of Blackness and representation. The central woman in the painting is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. She is an elder who has probably experienced the ugly mechanisms of of power, and yet is now wrapped in the flag that has denied her humanity for so long. I juxtaposed this image with Condoleezza Rice who held one of the greatest positions of power.
Angela Davis writes “that racism is something far deeper than that which can be resolved through processes of diversification and multiculturalism.” So what then does it mean to now have individual people of color in high positions within the official power structure, particularly in regards to how we understand Blackness and “Black Community?” I wanted to explore how certain figures are treated as “stand-ins” for the “race.”
For example, Ruth Simmons, previous president of Brown University, is revered as an embodiment of progress because of her body, regardless of her existential politics.
Black intellectuals like Cornel West are also understood to be translators of Blackness and spokespeople for some imagined monolithic mass identity.
This painting is about the ways in which Black politicians and intellectuals interacts with a white power structure in formulating a voice for an imagined collective Black. In this painting the black bodies, derived from the slave ship diagram, resurface. The violently simplified, bodies are flung across the vast auditorium in a power exchange between the the lone, Black figure and the attentive white audience. I stand in this painting, again, as a complicit, yet resistant participant.
In Make way for progress I attempt to raise the question of how the state continues to destroy peoples’ communities and to actively protect that destruction in the face of collective resistance. I was thinking particularly of the destruction of public housing in the aftermath of Katrina.
Welcome to Black History Month is a challenge to the ways in which we conceive of racial progress. This held particular weight at the time of this painting's creation with the elections and candidacy of Obama. I am interested in challenging mainstream understandings of what Obama means for this country in regards to achieving some type of “post-racial” future and how he is constructed, and claims himself, to be an embodiment of Black history.
In all 3 grayscale paintings the viewer confronts the question of spectatorship and complicity. The viewer becomes an extension of the composition as s/he join the painted figures in bearing witness to the central subject matter, thus, implicating his/herself in the issues/events depicted. I was interested in developing this idea as a means to confront and challenge the inherent reality of spectatorship within visual art, particularly stretched canvas paintings.
Identification was inspired by a quote from Huey P. Newton: “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.” In making three paintings that highlighted passivity and oppression, I also wanted to consider how to visualize the creation of communities of resistance and struggle in our present time. I considered the act of pointing as the ultimate empowered gesture of consciousness.
In this piece I revisited the symbols of slave ship/middle passage and cotton as one starting point for the creation of U.S. imperial power. The initial inspiration for this painting came from Du bois’ Black Reconstruction in which he reorients and reclassifies the slave as the Black laborer, the foundation of Western modernity. Again, I have inserted Obama as a means of raising questions of progress. What will it mean for him to become the next figurehead of this empire?
Furthermore, can we even understand progress as a linear progression of events and moments? The thin washes, drips, and glazes become signifiers of temporal progression and transformation. I have juxtaposed these finely laid, thinly painted areas with thick, tar-like paint or flakey dense spaces that render the cotton and Thomas Jefferson’s face. These contrasts are meant to generate tensions and contradictions in the painting.
On an aesthetic level, what would it mean to juxtapose the imperialist American landscape tradition of the Hudson River School with propaganda art from the Black Power era? I looked at the work of Emory Douglass, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party and the artist for their weekly publication. His work were effective tools in giving voice to a new sense of community power. For example, he established the “pig” into the American English lexicon as reference to the police.
In Night-Vision #2 I appropriated elements from some of Douglass’s collages and situated them within the backdrop of the romantic American landscape tradition. This piece became an intricate compilation of merging questions about colonization—both in this country and its most contemporary barefaced forms in Palestine and Iraq—and the (multiracial)face of oppressive power.
I continued to appropriate elements of the Hudson River School landscape paintings as facades for the destruction that lies just beneath the surface of a colonial-settler empire like the u.s. Like my earlier decomposing white house paintings, this piece captures the sinking contradictions that have come from the legacy and continued reality of exploitation and dehumanization in this country.
The final painting in this series was my most conscious effort to disrupt and expose the faux utopian narrative of Manifest Destiny reflected in the Hudson River School paintings, in this case a work by Asher Durand. Thickly painted areas taper off into drips and washes that bleed and bite the surface; the facades are decomposing, erupting, disintegrating; Dubois and a revolutionary black mother emerge from the landscape. The materiality of the paint and its contents are called into question.