CHICAGO — Jewel Ham’s work reflects the importance she places on community and the safe space that is created among her loved ones and friends. Around them, the artist feels a sense of freedom to be and express herself, freed from the anxieties and the weight she carries as a Black woman living in America. Her exhibition i said what i said, on view at the Stony Island Arts Bank, in collaboration with Anthony Gallery, shows the artist developing her signature painting style and voice.

Each of her figurative paintings is a blend of dazzling reds, oranges, purples, yellows, and pinks. Her color choices, which tend toward deeper and darker hues, showcase the vibrance of these hues and critique a colorist interpretation of Blackness as being monolithic, lacking a multitude of colors therein. In expanding the palette of Blackness to showcase a broader spectrum of color frequencies, Ham recalls the Black Light series by Faith Ringgold and the work of AfriCOBRA artist Wadsworth Jarrell

“To be Black is to be frustrated. For me, that frustration and fury are why we can do the things we can do: rap music, soul food, fashion. This frustration is a special bloodline. From there, it becomes: how I can use the color red to create a mood. … how can I really push that mood so that the bloodline is ever present?” the artist recently told me.

Jewel Ham, “what’s tea?” (2022), acrylic, pastel, and colored pencil on canvas, 54 x 68 inches

Ham’s work captures moments of freedom and liberation that can erupt during casual gatherings or leisure in everyday spaces. However, these moments exist against the backdrop of hardships, and can only be understood within this context. She channels the struggles of her ancestors, the blood they spilled, and the sacrifices they made for her to pursue her own version of freedom, through her masterful use of her signature color, red, and its many variations. 

The works in this exhibition, aptly named i said what i said, project an air of confidence and conviction. At the center of a painting titled “try me better” (2022) is a young woman holding a fat stack of cash to her ear as if it is a phone. The gesture evokes the showy antics of trap rappers. A mix of magentas, purples, red, blues, and yellows in the foreground envelop the central figure and sharply contrast with the color of two additional figures, who seem to blend into the background. They appear to be so enthralled in their own leisure pursuits that they are oblivious to the actions of the artwork’s central figure.

Another painting, “and did” (2022), depicts a young woman taking a sip from a bottle of cognac, with the phrase “hater’s tears” replacing the Hennessy label. The image is a nod to Hennessy’s iconic role within urban subcultures. In this way, Ham taps into shared experiences and the connotations of their symbols that are only known to those who are members of “the culture.”

Jewel Ham, “and did” (2022), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

Food and liquor play a vital role throughout the exhibition; they serve as the glue that coheres Ham and her loved ones. This is best embodied in the painting, “what’s tea?” (2022), where Ham places another painting in the exhibition, “get into it” (2021), in the corner of this the scene of three friends communing in a brunch-like setting. 

In its best moments the exhibition reads like a stream-of-conscious snapshot into the mind and experiences of the young artist. It exists as an ode to Black girl and Black boy joy and a celebration of their resilience and continued ability to create lemonade from lemons.

Jewel Ham: i said what i said continues at the Stony Island Arts Bank (6760 S. Stony Island Ave., Chicago, Illinois) through April 10. The exhibition was organized by Anthony Gallery in collaboration with the Rebuild Foundation.

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Emann Odufu

Emann Odufu is a writer, artist, cultural critic, and filmmaker hailing from Newark, NJ. His writing and film work have been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Document Journal, Okay Africa,...