MIAMI — In RATS, Janiva Ellis’s first solo museum exhibition, singular works created over the past year beckon the viewer into an alternate world rooted in the twisted realities of American life. In a series of vivid scenes, Black figures blend into tumultuous backgrounds, beleaguered by white violence. The works reflect both the current moment and the artist’s broader experimentations. 

In Ellis’s illustrious paintings, mythologies of white supremacy loom large — their physical forms are nearly life-sized and pervade canvases, while Black figures are rendered small, meek, and in diminutive cartoon-like forms. Dark humor is ever-present in her work, as satirical cartoons of Black bodies make visible ideologies of racial inferiority. Through this lens, Ellis illustrates the ways in which white supremacy leaves Black people in a constant state of violent uncertainty. The realities of this violence in our government and criminal justice system cannot be overstated, and Ellis’ work illuminates these harsh truths through grim sardonic mark making. 

Installation view: Janiva Ellis: Rats, Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 2021 (photo by Zachary Balber)

In “Hollow Provocation” (2021) a seemingly white figure contorts and cringes, their body writhing in agony. The all too common practice of appropriating Black culture while consciously refusing to discern the fullness of Black life weighs heavily on the solemn, solitary figure in this jarring work. A muddy green coffin-like structure peeled back reveals a distorted body while two large overbearing hands hover over the lone figure. Like much of the work on view, the color palette is dark, somber even, and filled with mystery. Ellis concedes the reality of violent Black/white interaction under the oppressive subjugation of white supremacy. 

As a title, “RATS” reads as serious yet sardonic, a nod to Ellis’s signature style, which is characterized by a sense of disillusionment, fantasy, and horror. Guided by color palette, the flow of the exhibition ranges from greys, greens, and blues to flaming reds and luscious blacks, with similar hues positioned near each other, allowing Ellis’s dexterity to take center stage. Taking their cues from the work of other artists “Bloodlust Halo” (2021), and “The Alleyest oop” (2021) are presented at the heart of the gallery. The former reimagines “A Child’s Grave, Hale County, Alabama” (1936), captured by the American photographer, Walker Evans, in his seminal book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which documented the lives of American tenant farmers during the Depression. Interpreting the image, Ellis recreates a dark scene of death and decay while an expressive gestural mark hovers just above the child’s grave. “The Alleyest oop” (2021) draws on the Spanish painter Fernando Cabrera Cantó’s “Al Abismo (To the Abyss…),” which features a group of figures struggling in desperation as ominous clouds waft in the distance. In the original work, a large cross sits high on a hilI in the background. In Ellis’s interpretation, a single boy staring down into the tortuous scene below replaces the foreboding cross. 

Installation view: “Janiva Ellis: Rats,” Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, February 25–September 12, 2021. Photo: Zachary Balber.

With RATS, Ellis delves deeper into many of her core themes — racism, satire, and white violence. She evokes the feelings of danger, uncertainty, and fear so prevalent in the lives of Black Americans today. The nightmarish circumstances of police brutality, inequity, and daily racism turn horrifically psychedelic and dreamlike in these works: the bigger question is when we get to wake up.

Janiva Ellis: RATS continues through September 12 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami (61 NE 41st Street, Miami, FL). The exhibition was curated by Alex Gartenfeld and Stephanie Seidel.

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Folasade Ologundudu

Folasade Ologundudu is a writer, podcast host/creator, and multidisciplinary artist whose work explores issues of identity, race, culture as it pertains to art, fashion, and design. She is the founder...