Art

Creating a Pantheon of Black American Gods, from James Baldwin to Nina Simone

“We’ve had Civil Rights, and a lot of people we idealize, especially in the Black community, we treat them like they are gods,” says the artist Tylonn Sawyer.

Tylonn Sawyer, “Class Photo II” (2017) (detail view) (all images by the author unless otherwise noted)

DETROIT — In a room with diffuse lighting, the “black box” gallery of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, a dark pantheon has been assembled. Tylonn Sawyer’s American Gods deftly splits the difference between a wide range of references, most prominently the orisha-based faith of Ifá and Yoruba religions, the codified behaviors of secret societies, and the Neil Gaiman novel with which the exhibition shares a title.

“Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers,” said Sawyer, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “So in the book, where gods end up in America, because immigrants throughout history have brought their gods here, and then the gods stay here, in a way — I was thinking about Blacks being brought here involuntarily, in a very similar way.”

Tylonn Sawyer, “Class Photo III” (2017) (detail view)

In each tableau, figures stand or sit, alone, in pairs, or in clusters; each holds a mask that obscures his or her face with the visage of a Black American icon. Sawyer has used this image of the icon-mask extensively in his work over the last three years, and for American Gods has created bunches of James Baldwins, cohorts of Nina Simones, an avatar Angela Davis, and more. In this collection of works, the backdrop for the figures are American flags, rendered in different motifs.

“We’ve had Civil Rights, and a lot of people we idealize, especially in the Black community, we treat them like they are gods,” said Sawyer. “We have this idolatry aspect to it.” In his portraits, Sawyer draws on this idea of American gods while subtly referencing aspects of Americana a kind of nostalgia that seems to specifically hearken back to “good old days” that conveniently exclude the societal recognition of African Americans as citizens with equal rights.

“Thinking about things associated with the United States — apple pie, hot dogs, baseball — it always refers to this very Eurocentric way of showing the pride in the United States, but it redacts the negative things that have happened. What happens when you place Blacks in the context of Americana?”

“American Woman: Columbia” (2018)

In two examples of this work, Sawyer’s muse and figure model, writer Scheherazade Washington Parrish, appears mask-less — the only figure in the room to wear her own face. Though Parrish is readily identifiable to a large portion of the Detroit creative community, Sawyer intends her, in this context, to appear as a Black recasting of some iconic female figures in art and American history. First, Parrish appears in the role of “Columbia” — the feminized version of Columbus who is the goddess of liberty and the symbolic personification of America. While Columbia is typically rendered as a beneficent and serene white woman (think the figure in the Columbia Pictures logo), Sawyer’s take is confrontational and powerful. “American Woman: Columbia” (2018) features Parrish with a Louisville Slugger slung across her shoulder, eyes deadlocked with the viewer. Her posture is relaxed, but her expression reads, “Try me.”

The adjacent work, the largest in the gallery, is an image of Parrish and her son in a rendition of a pietà — a common tableau in Christian art that renders Mary sorrowfully holding the body of Christ after the crucifixion. Clad in a black hoodie, the boy reclined in Parrish’s arms cannot but evoke the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, and Parrish, in this case, is an every-mother, stoically representing the agony and sacrifice of sons to American mothers of color.

“Post-Hope” (2018), installation view

Sawyer’s work runs the risk of being repetitive in places, making the point about masks in many images that comes across equally powerfully in any given one. Though subtle variations and associations inform each figure, mask, and flag, they do not necessarily reinforce each other. Stronger are the standout works — like “Post-Hope,” featuring a figure in ambiguous sprawl or recline, face turned away from the viewer, with an Obama mask in the hand tucked behind his back. There is something ominous to the angle of the body, suggesting a fallen hero, and in the bands of white on the flag in the background, Sawyer has assembled an astonishing collage of images that appear when one searches the phrase “African American” at the Library of Congress website.

“Untitled: (Jean-Michel Basquiat)” (2017), from a second, accompanying body of work by Sawyer, Golden Boys, on display in the Rose Gallery.

“The Library of Congress is like the collective memory of the United States,” said Sawyer. “There were some positive things that were in there, but for the most part, they were these types of records, these tragic things — this is how the United States remembers blackness.” The micro-images include documentation of slaves and images from Reconstruction, triumphant and tragic moments in the Civil Rights movement, truly jarring oddities, including images of Judy Garland and Dick van Dyke in blackface, and even Sandra Bland’s mug shot, just three days before she was found hanged under suspicious circumstances after being taken into police custody in Texas in 2015. Difficult as it is to absorb these images, it is in the standout moments that Sawyer’s point comes across more emphatically. Perhaps with the repetition of icons, it is easier to lapse into aesthetic considerations, but when Sawyer puts down the mask, it’s difficult to look away.

Tylonn Sawyer: American Gods continues at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art (52 E Forest Ave, Detroit) through September 8.

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