What does it mean to rest? What does it mean to rest, specifically for a black man? What does it mean to rest as a black man when constantly in the midst of turmoil? Mario Moore tackles this question is his latest exhibition, Recovery, a solo exhibition in Detroit with David Klein Gallery. Opening Saturday, June 30th, and running throughout August, Recovery speculates on the ability of black men to actually rest or enjoy leisurely activities in the oppressive society faced today. Inspired by his own forced rest due to a craniotomy, the artist reflects upon black men, from prominent cultural leaders to close friends to self portraits, exploring what rest means at the intersectionality of blackness and masculinity.
Black people have been conditioned to be on point. Always alert, aware, and hypervigilant, rest is not something that is openly afforded us in the world we exist in. Oftentimes, black people resting publicly, is seen as a threat, an offensive and rebellious act to the American standard. Most notably for Americans, rest is something that is continuously put off, something to do later or when you’ve “made it” or are retired, or dead. Men, due in part to the toxicity of the patriarchy, are exceptionally conditioned not to rest, even when in the company of friends. When considering young boys, who in the company of friends should be able to relax, we see reactive body language, bodies poised to respond to the image they are presenting to their peers, responding to their parents, and as is unfortunately all too common, responding to law enforcement.
This lack of rest was something noted as a common theme even with the most popular Black American leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Mario surmised that Malcolm probably rested most on his trip to Ghana, where he was away from public eye and finally, as he claimed in a speech at the University of Ghana in May 1964, at home. Also noted in the speech are these words: “...when we are born in a country that stands up and represents itself as the leader of the Free World, and you still have to beg and crawl just to get a chance to drink a cup of coffee, then the condition is very deplorable indeed.”
Martin Luther King was a man who was always poised, strategically structuring media and press to show him in the most poignant light. Few people know the additional details surrounding Martin Luther King’s assassination. We are familiar with his travels and his assassin, but fewer know that he was on that balcony smoking a cigarette, or that his mistress had visited the night before. Sure, he could be demonized as anyone else would be, for violating his vows, and ostracized for his smoking habit that he never allowed to be photographed. But what if those moments were his rest? A man who made himself an icon, who controlled so many details of his life, appeared as perfect as he could possibly be- shot down at his most vulnerable moment. Away from the pulpit, wife, and kids, and in an alternate world where his woman and his cigarettes weren’t constantly scrutinized.
So what can rest be like when the majority of your waking moments are filled with apprehension? Moore captures the glimpses of what that relief, however brief, may feel like - relaxed expressions, unfurrowed brows, vulnerable bodies, painted on copper as if worthy of being immortalized, and drawn with silverpoint as if it were a delicate wish that is seldom seen. Either way it is evident and clear, rest is something to be considered, for everyone yes, but particularly black men - not just for their sakes but society as a whole.
For Moore, his rest was forced. In the midst of stress, life, and the struggle of being an artist, the pressure on his brain reached maximum capacity. He had a seizure at home, and after the subsequent visit to the hospital, was told he had to have an awake craniotomy to remove a mass that developed on his brain. In the following months, in order to make a full recovery, the only thing he could do was rest. Not being able to fully exercise his artistic abilities, he was fearful of a change in his process, something we can all relate to. Being forced to rest caused him to examine historical examples of other black men who experienced similar resting predicaments. This led him to study moments such as James Baldwin’s move to Paris, WEB DuBois moving to Ghana, Muhammad Ali getting his belt taken away, which in some ways were also like forced rest.
What does it mean to be relaxed as a black man and also how is that perceived in relativity to strength? Can one rest and still be strong? Historically in portraiture, white men are often portrayed sitting, women are standing and black men are positioned standing. Metaphorically it’s a gesture of the levels of power denoted visually, silently stating: in order for a woman or black man to have power, they must be seen standing, while the white man, sitting, retains his power regardless of his stance. We’ve all seen visuals of white men at rest, leisurely enjoying themselves without a care in the world. Post slavery, black people, especially black men, enjoying leisurely moment and resting, was seen as criminal offense, and with the assistance of the Black Codes, aided in the creation of chain gangs and thusly our modern day prison system. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, the “slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Black people were even required to present labor contracts to authorities to prevent vagrancy charges. Jim Crow laws increased the severity of vagrancy laws, and as we saw in 2014, Black men are killed for resting in parks (Dontre Hamilton) and black boys for playing leisurely in parks (Tamir Rice). When does a black man rest, when he’s dead? By American standards, it seems so. More black people were murdered by law enforcement in 2017 - approx. 304 - than were lynched in the worst year of Jim Crow - 161 in 1892. At the heart of the issue is mental health, which is a continuous problem across America. If black men don’t get to rest, what happens to their brains? Their mental health? How can we heal if we can’t rest? Reflections of Eric Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” - how many of us feel the same way?
These moments of reflection are most transparent in the silverpoint drawings that are presented in Recovery. Exuding an air of delicacy and flightiness, it’s as if each resting moment is a memory captured that will soon fade away. Rich, intricate details show varying expressions of what rest and relaxation means to the artist, be it moments in solitude in bed, the moment of release during an intimate session with his lover, or leaning leisurely, be it against a wall or on a couch. The self portraits are intricately drawn, down to the portraits in the background highlighting other men, not at rest, while Moore, the main subject, is. There are also works showcasing prolific black male icons during moments of rest, including James Baldwin relaxed in a sitting position, Miles Davis leaning back with trumpet in hand, Dubois in a hammock. Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Gordon Parks, all in bed, where some of the best rest is had. All of their faces speak of tranquility and vulnerability, a stark contrast to the set jaws and furrowed brows we have come to expect of these men. For just a moment, they can just be, without caring about name or stature or impressions on the world. A moment to breathe. The details in the drawings of these icons, with shadows that are brought out in a unique way due to them being silverpoint, are simple yet complex in the style. The extremities of each scene fading into obscurity once the main focal point of each portrait is attained, leaves one yearning for more context even though it’s not necessary for each piece to be understood. It’s almost as if there is a desire to see a complete rest, or maybe rest is never actually complete.
The paintings, which are oil on copper, are breathtaking and can stand alone in their own right. Smaller in scale than Moore’s usual works, but maintaining his usual painstaking attention to detail, the expressions of men of color on such shiny metal gives an impression of hope for the future. These are all friends, who appear comfortable enough to let down guard and share an intimate moment. There is a diversity in the hair and features of each individual, a soothing nod to the complexity of the identity that describes all that a black man is. One of the most prolific pieces in the exhibit is "A Student's Dream", an oil painting on canvas featuring the artist on an operating table with his eyes wide open.
As a visionary artist, Mario Moore encourages not just black men, but all of us, through his experiences and the experience of his fellow men, to examine exactly what rest looks like. Many don’t know what it even feels like, until a breaking point is reached. Some of us never have the luxury of knowing, having breached the tipping point and treading dangerously in the “too late” zone. By learning from his experience and expressing it in such an alluring visual manner, Moore encourages a look at the vulnerability of black men, and how exceedingly rare rest is, and should not be.
Experience Mario Moore's work in person at David Klein Gallery in Detroit, MI. The opening is Saturday, June 30th from 6-8pm. There will also be an artist talk on Saturday, July 21st at 4:30pm.
Mario Moore was born and raised in Detroit. He holds a BFA from College for Creative Studies, Detroit and an MFA from Yale, New Haven, CT. His work is in numerous private and public collections including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Winston Salem State University and Knox College. He was recently awarded the prestigious Hodder Fellowship by Princeton University. See more of his work here, and be sure to follow him on Instagram.