I struggled with whether or not I was going to actually do this series. Just like any other series I’ve created, it comes from a deeply personal place. When it comes to some of my more expressive work, I have rule: the piece is done when I step back and I feel something. inCOMPLETE did not fail to deliver. In fact, most of the pieces had me in tears upon completion.
inCOMPLETE is mainly about what I see and experience as a black man in America. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (a story I won’t get into here, maybe in a future series). Being raised a Witness is the foundation for my morals and core beliefs. At home, I learned a lot of self-hatred about being a black man, which I assume was unintentional. My parents did their best with their task of raising a black man in America. Those two factors made me the man I am today. I spent a good portion of my life believing (as I should) that I could be anything if I worked for it and earned it. As I’ve educated myself in my adult life, the color of the world around me started to change, my experiences started to make more sense, and it hurt to see. This evolution inspired this series.
In 2016 and early 2017, I have heard so many people telling protesters to “stop whining” or calling them “cry babies.” This gets under my skin, because before you know what a person’s real life experience is, you simply can’t judge their pain. So inCOMPLETE is about talking about what is real, what I really experience as a black man. It’s about starting conversation, not arguments. About being heard, and not just recycling talking points.
The reason I chose “inCOMPLETE” as the title is because despite the fact that we as a country have come so far in terms of race relations and made so much progress, we seem to have settled into thinking “we’ve done it.” But there is so much more work that still needs to be done. It’s like asking for a slice of pie that everyone else is getting, and fighting for your share, and in the end you get a bite and say you’ve won. Why? The picture is not complete. I want it to show in the art.
The terms “open wounds” in the series title ties into the cut-out portions of canvas. These represent the fact that, from the start, the canvas itself isn’t complete. This is a representation of the progress that still needs to be made. The element of the red drips that flow from the cutouts represent our “open wounds.” My goal with this series was to create art that would start conversations, and be both beautiful and troubling.
On Our Backs
“On Our Backs” is the first piece I completed in this series. I used this piece to nail down my process for each piece that followed. Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was part of my inspiration for this work: “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” To me, that’s America. This is something I say with both pain and pride: pain because of the history; pride because of the start of progress.
My process for this item was in two phases. I started with a pastel drawing of the slave, covered it with a clear coat and cleaned up the bottom of the canvas with white acrylic paint. Progress stopped on this piece for a while because I couldn’t figure out exactly how I was going to pull this off. I knew what I wanted to say and where it had to go, I just had no idea how i was going to get there. So the piece sat for months. Finally I started with the whip marks on his back, using the refill tube for my red acrylic marker. When I added the first lash and saw it drip down the canvas, I was hit by the power of what I was doing to this imaginary person who had been waiting on the canvas. He became real, and I felt like I was hurting him. Each line was harder to add than the one before.
Next, I figured how to cut the shape out of the canvas. This is something I had never done before, so I was taking a chance on ruining a piece that had already had an emotional response from me. My intention had always been to put an upside down White House under the figure, but when I finished cutting, I wasn’t initially happy with the result. I then decided to take the red refill tube and trace the lines of the cutouts, which intensified the amount of drips at the bottom of the piece, and really brought the piece together for me.
“On Our Backs” is about standing proudly while you’re still bleeding, and being ready to fight through that pain, in order to heal your wounds.
The depiction of black men and women as inherently angry without provocation has been used the media to instill fear of black people in the white population. It is a lie. The eyes of an “angry black man” are surrounded by other labels applied to black people, marginalizing them as threatening, aggressive criminals. The eyes are lying, which gave me the title of this piece.
I intended to make the labels decorative, used commonly and thrown around lightly as they often are in popular culture. The meaning is seemingly taken away, but the words are profoundly hurtful and hateful. The red tears from his eyes made me shudder as I painted them, they represent pain.
The process of creating #hashtag was very emotional and upsetting for me. It represents my own fear of being a victim of police violence. In researching the piece, I relived each abuse and each killing.
The base image of the hoodie was drawn in pastels, and that was detailed with shredded pictures of Emmett Till and the Scottsboro Boys. The falling bullet shapes in the background are printouts of police reports of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Rodney King,Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner.
Over the bullets are slogans from civil rights protest signs from the 1960s through today. The title of the piece comes from the sign I quoted at the bottom of the piece: “We are all one bullet away from becoming a hashtag,” with the word “hashtag” in red to represent blood being shed.
For me, this piece is about contemporary slavery in America. Prisoners, like many of their ancestors, are treated as three-fifths of a man. New slaves in the prison system are at their prime: in great shape, healthy and strong. But their power is used to manufacture products marketed to the outside world, and they earn next to nothing for their labor.
The depiction of a man with invisible bars also refers to black men being prisoners in the outside world. Going out can make me feel like prey being hunted, and I’m scared to go driving in the middle of the night. As a black man, I feel imprisoned in my own home, locked inside at night.
The dominant theme for this piece is the internal struggle within the black community to succeed and climb up the ladder. My perception is that black people pull each other down in that process. I was raised to think I was better than other black people, although that was not said explicitly. I was told to not be lazy, and that other black folks were lazy, and that by working harder than them, I could succeed. Only by competing with each other and stepping on each, we can get up the ladder.
The cut-out image of a man pulling the woman down as she tries to climb out of her current situation may be hard to see, and that’s intentional. Similarly, the problem itself is blurry and not always well-defined. As you stare at the cut-out and the image becomes more clear, you can see the shape of a man holding onto a woman. I believe that collaboration and mutual support are key to uplifting the community as a whole, and that we can’t get anywhere as a people if we are constantly climbing over each other.
Personally, I relate more to the woman climbing in this picture, naked and exposed as she struggles to overcome challenges. I have often felt ostracized from the black community, as early as my school days when I was made fun of because I spoke “like white people.” But regardless of personal ambition or education, on the outside we all face the same challenges.
INdiVISIBLE depicts in a simple pastel drawing an elongated shape of a woman’s face and neck looking up. The controlled beauty is meant to contrast with the chaos of the background made of flowing and wild hair and words.
The beautiful woman is faceless, invisible. Her voice is not heard, speaking up against the injustice and trying to advocate for herself and her family against the chaotic systemic targeting of black Americans. She is being told that she is the cause of her struggle, and that her behavior should change in order to receive better treatment.
The title INdiVISIBLE is a play on the phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” America remains in fact profoundly divided, with large segments of society being talked over and silenced, blamed and invisible.
Great Again? questions the role of the black man in Trump’s America. My depiction of Trump was not meant to be a mocking caricature, as many critics fall back on, but instead a representation that is potentially likeable. Instead, I aim to highlight what I have personally experienced first and second hand in the wake of his election: a sharp increase in verbal and physical attacks on black people and other minorities.
In the image, Trump points toward the future, preaching his vision. His arm is around a black man, who could be any and every black man, but this man is covered in blood drips. The blood drips from the cut out of a shadow of a tree. And if you look closely, you will see that the shadow includes the outline of a lynched man. The shadow of history represents the fact that America has never been great for black and brown people. Making “America Great Again” doesn’t apply to those who are covered in blood.
Home of the Brave
Home of the Brave is my first 3-D piece, and the idea behind it developed over an extended period of time. The head coming from the canvas represents the growth and upward movement of black people in America.
The base of the piece, on the canvas, is the past: an actively burning American flag with the lyrics from the third stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner, summing up a bittersweet moment in American history. The land of the free did not apply to the slaves, and they are specifically excluded in this line:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Building on this, I represented growth from ugly beginnings: crying permanent, carved out tears, the head is pasted with dripping pictures of Huey Newton, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, three men among many who fought for change.
The leaves cascading off the head are cut out in the shape of tobacco and cotton leaves, products of slave labor being shed as black people emerge from the past. This is meant to be a hopeful piece, and the light coming from inside shines bright through the carved tears.
Thanks for taking a look
Prints and originals of the entire series are available in my store