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Rashaad Newsome works in video, dance, performance, computer programming, and collage, among other mediums. He is a sophisticated, canny interpreter of the complexity of surfaces, colors, and images, specifically of how they are transformed when applied to bodies, and how they reflect and refract dynamics of power, race, and gender. The work is consistently rewarding on an intellectual level; if I can point to a unifying formal quality that appears again and again for me, it’s the kinetic, embodied way Newsome has grappled with his ideas. The through line Newsome is exploring now is more conceptual: he is investigating the idea of agency, which he calls, in satisfyingly bodily terms, the “connective tissue” of his art.
Because movement has been such a force in drawing me into Newsome’s work, his latest exhibition, Reclaiming Our Time, at De Buck Gallery, was challenging and revelatory in its stillness. Here, Newsome has displayed a series of collaged portraits which he describes as using heraldry (“an image made of images,” he says) to explore human agency. The project, which began with his 2016 exhibition at the gallery, STOP PLAYING IN MY FACE!, presents a tricky proposition: it uses images to compose other images that seek, by calling attention to what they hide, to reveal uncomfortable truths about how we look and see. And Newsome does not cut any conceptual corners: he is dealing with fraught historical interactions, notably the early 20th-century avant-garde’s absorption of African and Oceanic forms, and re-appropriates some of their most visible signifiers as meat and material.
The collages, matted in black and richly layered, resemble conventionally composed portraits of feminine figures. It’s necessary to approach them very closely to see how they are meticulously organized from fragments of other objects and figures, each with its own narrative baggage. In “Yaa” (2017), the layers of brocaded skirts and petticoats and a voluminous hair style suggest something of 18th-century France. Closer inspection, however, belies this first optical impression: the legs seem to be from a West African statue; the hair looks to be from a runway show (sleek, Caucasian, glossed into a couture “African” style); and the Marie-Antoinette-style fan (coyly hiding the torso) in truth appears to be a repurposed and precisely placed interior photograph of a Renaissance or Baroque ceiling, complete with an oculus.
The detail of the “fan” gets at the dizzying core of Newsome’s representational and interpretive work. Newsome talks directly about Cubism as one of the impetuses behind the show; here we can discern a Surrealist gesture, the decontextualized image made to look, quite naturally, like what it’s not. At the same time, in literally representing African forms, it denudes what Surrealism, along with Cubism, sought to hide even as it fetishized it, and lays bare the appropriation. Further, Newsome takes on the the slipperiness between the subtle, evocative ways that Surrealism used inscrutability as an artistic gesture, and the obvious, deliberate way it appropriated work by artists seen as “other.” He absorbs this paradox into his own lexicon, and there is power and agency in remaking these images according to the logic of his own history and sensibility. When I suggest, in discussing the way his work deals with the mysterious and the hidden, that none of the figures have actual faces (all are either masked or facing away from the viewer), Newsome objects: “The masks are faces.” Some works blend textiles from different geographic regions traditionally linked to different genders, re-envisioning imagined boundary lines.
Viewers can connect to the bodies in the frames by sitting on a number of sculpted stools, which were fabricated in collaboration with a Brazilian firm and based on historical West African design styles. By inviting us to situate our bodies, as it were, in an African frame, Newsome underscores the significance of reconfiguring our vantage points.
Reclaiming our Time, of course, references the viral video of California congresswoman Maxine Waters refusing to play along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s vividly ham-fisted attempt to sidestep her questioning. Waters has since arguably become a pop-culture icon in her own right (the Washington Post called her the “reigning meme queen of the Trump administration”). In this sense, her kinship with Newsome’s project — pop cultural but politically astute — is clear. Further, by staking her claim to the rules of the system, reclaiming the time procedurally allotted to her to ask questions, Waters touched on several nerves: weariness with political sleaze, certainly, but also a need to see things as they are and not as they are presented, and a refusal to accept what you’re expected to accept. In this way, the phrase unlocks the agency Newsome’s figures contain. His concern is partly with reclaiming “our time,” of course, in the sense of an African American artist reclaiming and re-valorizing the artworks made by black people and long present in Western art while minimized in its art history. But in creating these historically and visually composite figures, Newsome is also reclaiming time more broadly, enacting a right to marking, reworking, and correcting the omissions of the past in the present.
Reclaiming our Time continues at De Buck Gallery through (545 West 23rd St, Chelsea, Manhattan) December 9.
Rashaad Newsome will debut a new performance piece, “Running,” at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East side, Manhattan) at 7 pm tonight.
On Wednesday, November 8, at 6pm Newsome will be in conversation with Emmanuel Iduma, co-curator of the Nigerian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, at De Buck Gallery.
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