William Villalongo unpacks the ideology of using black velvet as the support for his still life paintings.
I started using velvet material around 2002 to 2005. At the time, I was really trying to find my materials as an artist. The history of Western painting that I studied in school, studying oil painting, at the time seemed to not really speak to my needs as an artist. It either felt insignificant or at odds with trying to convey a Black subject in the way that I had been thinking about. So looking towards the velvet materials, really looking at the visual database in my head from being a child and growing up in the late seventies and eighties, you know, my mother and her friends often had Afrocentric kitsch objects, figurines and velvet paintings around, lots of black and gold and lots of figures with afros engaged in mythological activities within the narratives of the paintings. So this really expanded my imagination as a child. It was the first artwork I envisioned seeing. I was trying to figure out how I could be more true to something that was personal to me and how to extend that into the art that I was making.
So for the viewer, I’m really interested in and talking about a poetics around the Black subjects. The velvet is a part of that mining of a type of poetic. I love the material because it is black and rich and because it has these physical properties which often become free or deny reflective light, seemingly deny notions of gravity. But it imbues the object with a type of warm softness and depth. This is the way that I think about Blackness. This is the way I think about the black subject.
In the work, whether I am dealing with a difficult or painful history or whether it’s celebratory, the black velvet really becomes this sort of blanket or space around those subjects, around these ideas that call to a notion of Blackness that is vast and deep. And I hope the viewer feels it.
David Antonio Cruz
David Antonio Cruz describes his process-based drawing in Elegies.
The fog suspended over the line speaks of a moment of suspension, poetry and the mystery of things that live in the dark. The multilayer drawing is composed of ink, flash paint and wax pencil. Each layer is built upon the first layer. First, [there is] the paper stained with ink. That’s followed by a second layer of light gray paint, of childhood memories of visiting Puerto Rico, of my grandparents’ land. The third layer of dark gray paint is composed of an image of a park in the downtown area of Philadelphia, where I grew up. One layer is fuzed upon the other to create a known space. The top layer is made with a wax pencil of a ceiba tree. A tree, of course, a symbol of family and growth. The ceiba tree grows in the Caribbean, Latin America, South America and West Africa. The bark is used in rituals, and some cultures believe it was the entryway into the afterlife.
In his lively description, Azikiwe Mohammed explains his eclectic influences and how the viewer should perceive his works.
I’ve been obsessed with oranges for a while because in the historical sense, they have been a very easy telltale sign of who has cash. When there’s a bowl of oranges left out, the reason it is left out is to tell you—with your eyeballs and not with someone’s words—that you were in a wealthy home. You were in a cashed place. Now in the painting space, that information also carried over.
If you saw an orange in somebody’s painting, [in the same way as] the candle blown out is Jesus. The orange carries that same immediate one to one: if you see the orange, you know that the home you were looking at, or the people that are in that home, generally the family that would commission said painting is a wealthy family. You are looking at a wealthy circumstance.
Now the painters also had a use for the oranges outside of the depiction of wealth in these homes. The orange for the human making said painted object was a business card of sorts, because a trillion years ago there wasn’t that much stuff to paint. It was only, you know, four or five paintings you could make. So how do you know if anybody’s good? You can’t tell, it’s all the same stuff. One way that you can tell is by looking at somebody’s painting of oranges.
How do they render what is otherwise a circle of a singular color and make it into something more than the sum of its circular parts? Do they add the little dots and the pits? Do they add a drop of water that reflects out, and you can see other parts of the room in the drop of water? The fly sitting on the orange was a big classic in relation to putting time into the often untimed space of painting. If I can take some of the history of this object and move it into another form of itself, into another space, this form factor being the neon orange that we are dealing with here in Ms. Keisha’s for Dinner, These N****s Got Money.
Anybody that is in the proximity of this neon object will be touched by its light to some degree. The person sharing that space also now becomes the wealthy person in question. They now are in possession of a bowl of oranges.
A painting is a sculpture that is meant to be seen from one angle and tends to ignore the person standing in front of it. It is a sculpture that does not play by the rules of sculpture.
When you enter the space that the sculpture is in, you walk around it left, right, in a circle. You stare at it from up to down. Based on how you engage with it, what your body is doing, and what the physical object is, the average of those two things is what your experience is of the sculpture moving forward. With most painted spaces, you walk in front of the painting. It ignores you. It stares off wherever it’s staring. You stand there. You take in whatever it has to offer, and then you move about your way with the resulting experience being what is happening inside of the object and not with the object itself.
Now I get ignored enough when I walk through spaces or when I walk in front of other things. So I attempt, when making things within the painted space, to not make objects that ignore you, but that say the same thing as sculpture says: “Hey, thanks for stopping by! This is not complete until you showed up. So thanks for showin’ up!”
Now, in this case, the case of Ms. Keisha’s for Dinner, These N****s Got Money #5, when you step in front of this space, you are able to partake in this history of the orange, of the Black person now being the monied person, because the purple, green and blue in the cartoon space, the American cartoon space, is the coded language used for black people.
And since neon isn’t something that was meant to render humans, right? There is no black neon. There is no black gas that goes into these tubes. It’s made for advertising and for collapsing the largest amount of people into the same space, which is also the reason why they never put traditionally colored Black and Brown folk in cartoons because they wanted to appeal to the widest amount of people as possible to make sure that as many people engaged with that message as possible. When that happens, when people are looking to “engage” or “include,” the first person that is normally left out is the Black person, is the Brown person, is the person not whom the wealthy bell will most often toll for, which in this space the intention is towards the white person. Hopefully, with this offering, we can widen that conversation just a small amount.
When whomever steps in front of, and is colored by, the lights for Ms. Keisha’s for Dinner. These N****s Got Money #5, for that time at least, they can be wealthy as well.
Engaged in the iconography of classical painting, Elizabeth Colomba discusses the symbolic elements in her painting Coconut.
My name is Elizabeth Colomba. I’m a representational artist based in New York. I’m originally from France and I’m of Martinican descent. I like to combine different themes in my paintings, and I focus a whole series on still life.
My process is: I start with a study in charcoal, graphite and white chalk. Usually that, of course, is reminiscent of old masters and that’s usually what I focus on. From that, I incorporate a lot of the language of painting, which is iconography. Then I’m trying to put all the signifiers in the study, but it can evolve from the final work. From that, when I’m happy with a study, I transfer it onto a canvas and I start work with the dead layer, which in French is called the grisaille which is the idea of painting everything in black and white so that when you layer color paint, it gives an incredible depth. You see it in Vermeer paintings, you see it in Ingres, all those old masters. It’s also, for me, a nod to that time where the art was under colonizer time and slavery time. I really focus on that period.
Obviously, it’s a process that takes some time. It’s a process that gives all the power to oil painting, to a representation, but is echoing, of course, old masters and that time.
In that one in particular with my still life series, I also wanted to represent the food in a different way. When you refer to still lifes at the time, they’re all presented very beautifully. It could be cornucopia as the focus, with different foods all together. You could have different types. They’re also a way to show your wealth. You could have a pineapple in there, you can have apples, you can have pears. It was just a way to show wealth. It was a reflection on life and death but it’s also showing wealth. And I wanted to focus each of the still lifes on one food each time and to represent the decay of each food.
For example, in the coconut one, you see them being ripped off the tree. So it’s not something that we could call beautiful per se, but it is still the beauty of the fruit. It’s the idea of, again, you ripped something from life, the tree of life. Coconut is very special because it’s a fruit that you can survive on indefinitely. If you don’t have water, you can drink the coconut. It will hydrate you and feed you. So there’s something very symbolic about life in the coconut.
As far as the avocado, it looks like one of the avocados fell on the ground and broke in two. It’s the beginning of decay. Usually still lifes are a reflection on life and death. So I thought it was interesting to represent the fruit once it’s ripped from a tree and starting to die. And I wanted to push that narrative further by showing it almost dying in front of us.
It’s also a parallel to what happened with the commodity that was used in the West Indies by people who invaded and decided to build their wealth and the economy of their countries, of whatever they could be, could grow there and take back and be more powerful and economically more powerful and exist in the world. And I wanted to show that whatever they were taking, they were not giving back to people on the islands. So I thought it was a good way of showing it by doing that parallel.
You know, it’s interesting [in the term] still life, there is the word life in it. But in French, it’s called nature morte. Nature morte means dead nature. There is something also interesting just in the words by playing with life and death. What you see in the paintings, you have reference to insects, which in the language of painting is that fight always between life and death. The butterfly appears as something that is embodying both of these ideas because it has such a short life. It has a long life as a [bug] but it has a very short life as a butterfly which supposedly is going to be more beautiful. I like this language that you can use visually, but also even in the name of the painting [style], that nature morte/still life, you still have the idea of life and death.