Renee Royale (@reneeroyale)
How does the narrative change when the representatives of the art reflect the orientation of the artist, or understand the artists’ perspectives from an equilateral perspective? The Aesthetics of Matter, curated by Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont, proved that there is a much-needed overhaul in the art world of how artwork is displayed, and more importantly, who is displaying it.
I’ve walked into many galleries. I’ve grown accustomed to being ignored, bypassing heads buried in laptops, draining the possibility of direct inquiry about the artists from the moment one’s foot is set through the door. Occasionally a glance up as the door opens, then, once the face is identified as a person presumed not to be a collector, any fleeting attention disappears, and the viewer is subliminally shut out of the world of information that lies behind those desks. The deep analysis of the emotional and mental approach of the artist is reserved for a higher tax bracket, the viewer left to contend with the physicality of the work, information obtained prior to entry, and their own imagination. Art fairs have the capacity to be, but often are not, very different, where a quick “Let me know if you have any questions,” often is the silent buffer of, “If you’re not buying, don’t ask.”
Mickalene and Racquel were visible every single day of the Volta Show. I know this because I too, was there every day, constantly drawn to this central display of artists that not only looked like me, but were also curated by people that look like me. How many black curators exist in the art world? Academia aside, curating, which is still in itself an emerging profession, has often been delegated to PhD holders who lurk in back rooms of museums, often people who have little to no connection with the art that they represented. We live in America, land of labels, where two queer women of color, a power couple whose merits stood equally formidable in their own right, took this label-filled world we lived in and fitted it with their own narrative, pushing the envelope and questioning the way those labels are viewed. I was surrounded in a room filled with artists, but they were more than just artists - they are black, brown, mixed, queer, straight, gender non-conforming, MFA holders and college dropouts, makers, molders, that for the first time that I could remember, presented a cohesive representation of all the non-monolith that blackness is. Our narrative was our own. And people flocked to it. Patrons of all backgrounds listened with admiration and respect as the artists, and people representing them, provided engaging, influential dialogue about the core tenets of their artistic practices, unflinching in their transcription of the depths and mind of each artist. The psyche that pervades in a world where, subconsciously, people of color are made of feel as if their existence is not enough, didn’t exist inside the careful curation of a safe space where the artists and their work were more than just enough, they were essential, necessary, important and hungered for, in a way not often seen in my previous experience of fairs.
The artists - David Shrobe, Kennedy Yanko, Christie Neptune, Devin Morris, Didier William, Tomashi Jackson, Troy Richie, and Kameelah Janan Rasheed - are all prolific in their creations. Walking to enter the Aesthetics of Matter one is greeted by Christie Neptune’s refusal to return a gaze, looking away from the viewer in such a deliberate manner that one is automatically drawn in, and is confronted with the prevailing need to return the gaze of an attitude that isn’t yet comfortable with being challenged, one that always demands to be seen. On the opposite wall, she beats this country at its own game - issuing government patents that dismantle the color lines that have been instituted for far too long, then gives visuals of how this dismantling is done in a video where she demonstrated the removing of the curtain and supporting structures that uphold something that, as we can clearly see on the 13” screen, doesn’t tangibly exist.
Juxtaposing each other in the most beautiful ways are works by David Shrobe and Didier William, both using wood, the great building material of centuries renown, here used to shape and give form to ethereal figures. William carves and paints wood like a sculptor molds clay, using inspiration from the Haitian Revolution, that often overlooked first successful rebellion, as a repository view of the similar struggle we are facing now in our polarized 21st century climate. Haunting eyes, appearing like schools of fish, give his human structures their form, reminiscent of humanity’s oneness, black unity, and the innate human need to belong to each other. One in particular, “La Croix A Samedi/Two Sons”, shows two bodies ambiguously becoming one, the merging of matter to ascend to a more powerful, magnificent whole. Shrobe, whose collages use found wood along the streets of ever gentrifying New York City, repurposes the furniture and simultaneously rectifies the way we view visibility. Hidden silhouettes and portraits without faces, Shrobe’s work, inspired by various emissaries of color, draw you in and pull you out at the same time. A mysterious favorite, “Diplomatic Mission”, inspired by historical Congolese diplomats to Italy features a Goya-esque figure, secure in his position, but with a look of concern in his eyes. Lacking the necessary nose and mouth to give us an accurate explanation for the expression, the surrounding circumstances are left up to the interpretation of the viewer. Is it mild surprise, discomfort, or fear?
Kennedy Yanko is a painter, sculptor, and in many ways, inventor. Using what she affectionately calls “paint skins”, she interweaves what appears as soft, malleable paint with concrete moldings made from protective materials that she sources from construction sites. Considering the effects of gentrification, it’s an interesting way to give objects that appear useless or broken a new breath of life. Things are not always as they appear, and this is captured effortlessly as the “skins”, which are actually rock hard, are juxtaposed with welded metal, creating a duality that encourages the viewer to reexamine not just what art is, but what it is made up of.
Devin Morris collages the creation of spaces. His works draw you in, subtle details making you look closer and then edging out to gain complete clarity of the cohesiveness of the Baltimore native’s works. These are real life scenarios, giving substance to the reality of the multiplicitous society we exist in. Confronting sexuality and gender in a delicate, precise manner, he is the ruler of a domain where we all exist as we choose to be, no compromises or questions asked. We simply exist.
Tomashi Jackson and Troy Michie, both created works that are research based at their core. Jackson utilizes color theory to examine our experience. Her abstract works serve as documentation of historical racial discrimination that are so heavy the colors are almost there to soothe you through the experience of the weight of her work. Her collaged found materials are weightless in appearance, bold reds and recognizable blues keeping your gaze focused, making your mind search for what lies beyond the surface. What you find might disturb you, but it will make you think. Thinking is a great way to expand the mind, and we live in a day and age where minds would well suffice being expanded. Troy Michie, using the standout bits of clothing and cutouts of portions of brown men’s bodies, examines otherness and references his Texas roots, Pachuco culture, and the historical Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Existing outside the realm of belonging, identity, gender and personhood are coalesced while being fragmented in humanistic expression. Recognizable articles of clothing and faces with eyes cut out, men in suits missing faces, a suit made up of pieces of photos of a human, all reevaluating what human is and what being human actually means.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed, also research based, gave us two messages, one utilizing strategically cut out and/or blacked out literary text, juxtaposed with black and white images, the other, and entire protest that speaks clearly to the times we are in now: advertisement papers with detachable phone numbers that states “SELLING MY BLACK RAGE TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER.” Black people are fed up and aren’t taking the same old sh*t anymore, and Rasheed is here to let you know in case you forgot. So many questions in her work, showing how we intersect and dialogue with each other and how much or little we are valued. Who is the bidder? Black slaves, black culture, and now, black rage, on the auction block. How much are we worth?
Not all the artists at the Aesthetics of Matter curated section were represented by people of color. Artists of color are not always represented by people of color, but when the people who are representing them actually care about the individuality of the artist and the true meaning behind the work, it shows, and it’s a glaring opposition to the norm that has been set by the art world. It calls for a stepping up of other galleries who have yet to get uncomfortable, and acknowledges that there are people who actually get it, and we need more of them. No neatly packaged schpiel, these were intimate conversations highlighting artists that were wholly realized and completely understood. In today’s political climate, there is a constant feel for the need of exclusion, but ultimately intersectional inclusion is what leads to understanding. As Frantz Fanon says, “it is not race that creates racism, it is racism that creates race.” In a world where the way we see each other is structured to keep us separate, what happens when you are finally on equal ground? You are seen as just human. Too often the black gaze in the art world was viewed as some sort of exotica, or a political “response” to the oppression felt by generations of racism, packaged in a nice neat box for white temporary uncomfortability, presented by white curators and gallerists who rarely connected more with their artists beyond creating a narrative to suit the agenda of marketing and selling the work. What happens when you are free to display yourself as yourself and not a response to?