What is Past is Prologue: An Elevate Exhibition is rooted in the friendship between six friends and the conversations that arise through their art-making practices. All of the artists, based in or born on the east coast, use art to address the past, present, and future through a historical lens. Artists are often the best teachers of history and they serve as viable sources to imagine the future.
Stan Squirewell makes multi-layered, mixed media collages that are a result of several years of archival study and exploration. And like Coahoma, which represents his great, great-aunt in South Carolina, most pieces are heavily influenced by his family history. Squirewell says that “For most of my life I believed my family were African Americans who had arrived to the U.S. on slave ships, and it wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered my true heritage, that they were indigenous Americans. As a teacher, working closely with the national curriculum I constantly see how history, even now, is curated. My art attempts to rewrite these assumed histories. The beauty of the works capture the viewer, but it’s the ugly that intrigues and leads them to look deeper.”
Rediscovering his ancestry has prompted Squirewell to question his identity, particularly in the western hemisphere. It also speaks to his battle with the omnipresent slavery narrative, when he himself comes from a black family that is not believed to have been enslaved. Through portraiture he challenges histories and presents a more empowering narrative for black identity, seeking to change the terminology around the very word ‘black’. Each artwork is complete only after he ceremoniously burns both the collage and its hand-carved frame, which includes motifs and markings from ancient indigenous American and African cultures.
Growing up as a first-generation son of Nigerian immigrants in Missouri, Anthony Akinbola saw durags (a close-fitting, typically stretchable piece of cloth that is worn on the head that usually has long ends that are tied in the back, also known as do-rags) as a way to express his Black American identity as well as to assimilate into American society. Today Akinbola uses the durag as one of his go-to materials when making art in his Brooklyn studio. In an interview with Sebastian Jean last summer, he said, “It’s important to understand the history of the object and that relates to conversations around accessibility and respectability. It’s funny because the durag was originally created to make you look less threatening and now it’s the flip. I want viewing my work to become a spiritual experience.” He continues, “It’s like a portal, I feel like black people can walk into my work.”
Akinbola’s choice of material is just one aspect of the artist’s attempt to change the way we see art, by making the viewing experience less exclusive and more inclusive. In this work, CAMOUFLAGE #071 (Hot Air Balloon) we are presented with an imposing four-foot square of durags that mimic the inflating envelope of a hot air balloon. A dozen durags cover the surface, registering a dozen different colors, as the satin garments stretch and pull one another into place. In a world full of cultural appropriation, Akinbola presents a culturally appropriate representation of just one aspect of Black identity in America, through the eyes of a first-generation American.
Tariku Shiferaw explores mark-making through painting, mixed-media, and installation, addressing the physical and metaphysical spaces of art and social structures. The work interrogates the act of mark-making, as well as the identity and role of the thinker responsible for the marks. Power struggles between those allowed to make their mark in society and those who are marked is further deconstructed through his artwork.
Every work is titled using song titles from Hip-Hop, R&B, Blues, Jazz, Reggae, and Afro Beats, genres of music that have historically been instruments of resistance against a system that has repeatedly attempted to silence and erase Black bodies. The works automatically inherit the references, identities, and history portrayed through the songs, effectively marking, claiming space, and celebrating Black bodies and culture.
Nate Lewis makes empathetic artwork driven by a desire to learn through discovery. The patterns and textures created with his scalpel are meditative: through his repetitive mark-making, he transforms prints on paper into contemporary relief sculptures. Working as a critical care nurse in Washington, D.C. for nine years, Lewis dabbled in the arts in his free time, first playing the violin, then developing a fine art practice that began with drawing, and now includes working in a range of media as a full-time visual artist. Lewis says, “I am interested in the unseen. My work is driven by empathy, and the desire to understand nuanced points of view. By altering photographs, I aim to challenge people’s perspectives on race and history through distortion and illusion. Treating the paper like an organism itself, I sculpt patterns akin to cellular tissue and anatomical elements, allowing hidden histories and patterns to be uncovered form the photographs. I approach subjects and imagery from a diagnostic place with the idea of utilizing diagnostic lenses and contrast dyes. By virtue of my medical training, I am interested in the tensions that exist within and without us. Ultimately, the work embraces humanistic ideas of human connection and understanding.”
Washington, D.C.-based artist Shaunté Gates creates visionary landscapes that represent moments of chaos frozen in time. Working in the Afrofuturist tradition, the imagery in The Land of Myth includes references to both real life and fantasy. Gates says, “Some pieces expose the frenzy and momentum of a dream, others the pain of stillness. Within the work, I merge paint and photography to explore complexities of myths, while creating scenes that are allegorical to a labyrinth of social constructs.” In discussing the resulting imagery, he says “The urban landscape is one in which physical, psychological, sociopolitical and economic dynamics converge, creating challenges that impact innumerable individuals. These states are translated in the imagery I create symbolically. I primarily focus on the individual and their personal conflicts within these structures. A viewer encounters a subject on the verge of something and is left to imagine their fate. Through the manipulation of light and depth and movement, the energy of the human psyche becomes the narrative.”
From his series In the Service of a Villain, Coby Kennedy presents a possible glimpse into the future by crafting a handmade machete from a Brooklyn civic street sign honoring Marcus Garvey. The object is cut and ground down to form with a razor’s edge, connecting to both African artifacts and the finish of future weaponry. In Kennedy’s writings, he notes that “The use of the street signs as armaments points to the act of desperately utilizing the detritus of the metropolis to fashion into weapons of cultural self-defense. The utilitarian civic street markers become razor-bladed machetes imbued with the power, weight, and spirit of revolution.” The title Black Star Line is a nod the sign’s namesake, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born Black-nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement, which sought to unify and connect people of African descent worldwide. In the United States, Garvey was a noted civil rights activist who, among other achievements, founded a shipping company called Black Star Line with the goal of creating economic independence. Garvey saw that Black people across the globe were largely being exploited and left out of the global economy. The BSL would partly remedy that situation by facilitating the shipment of goods among the far-flung people of African descent, thereby fostering the growth of a self-reliant and resilient global black economy. The BSL would also transport emigrants to Africa for the establishment of a black nation-state. Reimagining the Marcus Garvey BLVD sign as a cultural relic, to be used in service for future freedom fighting is a direct reflection of Garvey’s philosophy, who wrote in 1925, “We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor Black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history.”
What is Past is Prologue: An Elevate Exhibition is located on the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati guest floors and is accessible to all 21c hotel guests. The artwork will be on view until October 11th, 2021.