Staring BACK

This year, the theme for the annual Through Our Eyes exhibit, “Celebrating 25 Years, Journey to South Africa: Struggle and Resistance” was designed to be wide enough so artists could access these ideas from different points of view and perspectives.

“I did not want to dictate to the artists what to paint,” said curator Adonnica Toler. “Struggle and resistance can be race, sex, social status, self-awareness or health … whatever the artists wanted to focus on.” The title also touches on plans to take the show on the road. Some of the 27 artists whose works are on display will be selected to show their art in a sister city exhibit in Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

In the 20th Century, discourse around struggle and resistance became part of wider discourse in large part due to artists like Lorna Simpson, Alison Saar, David Hammons and Radcliffe Bailey. Since then, the conversation has only grown more personal. In part, one imagines, because of cellphone footage that regularly shows police officers killing unarmed civilians and then likening the dead man to a demon, or some other such self-justifying nonsense.

Of course, police brutality is not the sole means through which people of color are subjected to the systemic racism in our nation—nor is it the only topic artists tackle. There is a historical lineage of multilevel suppression and Jacksonville-based Erin Kendrick tackles one of the more difficult-to-quantify expressions of resistance.

Kendrick explains that the root of her works is in theorist bell hooks’ idea of the “oppositional gaze.” That’s the “power of looking” hooks based on historical accounts of slave-owners (men, women and children) punishing slaves for “looking,” for simply making eye contact with white people. She explained further that her work is meant to examine and amplify the experience of African-American women. This takes the form of a portraiture that finds a corollary in high-fashion photographs and illustrations (with a soupçon of Elizabeth Peyton—but less smug and fey).

“Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality,” wrote bell hooks in her seminal book, Black Looks: Race and Representation.

Looking at Kendrick’s paintings, her paintings look back. Her figures gaze coolly out at the viewer, challenging assumptions about portraiture and power in a similar lexicon to Kehinde Wiley’s, but within a research framework that looks to African and American traditions more than those of Europe and, in doing, perhaps touches more on photographic than painted antecedents. In Kendrick’s portraits, the eyes of her subjects are exaggerated, recalling Sumerian sculptures. But while the eyes from the Tell Asmar Hoard seem rather supplicating and nervous, the eyes Kendrick renders feel calmly confident and blasé.

“For this show, I started out wanting to compare African-American feminism versus African feminism, and in the reading and research for that, I kept coming across this idea of ‘self-love.’ Self-love is necessary to overcome all these other things … racism, violence and then also, an extension of that: self-love being a political act,” said Kendrick (tacitly acknowledging the beauty she threads through her figures).

That idea then “migrated into the idea of Black presentation and how we show our blackness on our physical bodies. So I looked at two tribes in Africa, who still today make physical changes to their bodies—not so much in a sense of beauty—more to identify themselves as members
of a tribe.”

Kendrick researched the Himba and Suni tribes. Himba members take red clay and cover their bodies and hair with it in order to achieve a reddish tint; Suni people paint bodies and faces and stretch their ears. According to Kendrick, these are “just superficial [changes] they just like to do.” But these cues also serve to identify each marked person as a member of a particular group.

The artist then elaborated that she “juxtaposed that with young African-American women who tend to wear their membership to ‘the tribe’ like: the things they do to their hair and their bodies … so I made work about that, how we wear our blackness.”

Of her process, she said, “I start with a contour drawing using a Sharpie, then I use acrylic ink to layer the colors. I apply water to the canvas (or paper) with a brush in the place where I want the color to go. Then I apply the ink using an eye-dropper. I like to think of it as staining the surface. I relate it to the ways our identities are created over time. Layers and layers of history, prejudice, bias and teaching. I can only apply one or two colors per painting, per day, so it takes about two to three months to finish one. I usually work on about five or six at a time.”

The results are richly nuanced paintings that have a feeling of immediacy married to deliberateness. They, like much contemporary art, have multiple meanings, and these iterations suggest that while Kendrick is looking at identity politics, she’s also looking for a way to expand the conversation past the struggle. “I’m all for the resistance. My work has always been about the act of looking back.”

Celebrating 25 Years, Journey to South Africa: Struggle & Resistance runs Feb. 1-June 7. Family Day is 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 3. The Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, Downtown,