Q & A with Elaine Qiu

An interview with Tim Brown, Hillyer Director

(TB):

Your work explores liminal spaces between presence and absence, representation and abstraction. What can you tell us about the painting “Crossing” as an embodiment of this kind of in-between space?

(EQ):

“Crossing” is part of the ongoing “inner-scape”series that explores the intricacies of threshold moments in life. Threshold typically takes the form of ambiguous spaces or moments: the interplay between light and dark, the cusp of dawn and dusk. This series’ paintings are all balanced on the brink of coming together and falling apart. I’m interested in these moments, because they are electrified with possibilities, embodying the process of transitioning into a new reality.

The relationship of presence and absence is explored on both a psychological and a visual level. “Crossing” creates an environment or scene that you almost find yourself entering. Yet, when we go closer, the physicality of the canvas and the paint dispel both the visual illusion and the constructed reality in our minds. It calls our attention to the bond between the sociopolitical, psychological, physical and physiological spaces we inhabit and the richly textured terrain of our inner landscape.

As I paint, I condense numerous dimensions onto the canvas, creating the illusion of gazing through multiple windows into infinite worlds at once. It mimics how our memory functions:a blended recall simultaneously pulls snippets from various timeframes to form a seemingly cohesive, although not always accurate, representation. 

I make my paintings not only about something, but also about being something–each of my paintings exists as its own entity. I believe art can offer an encounter that brings forth revelations. These revelations can be transformations not unlike spiritual experiences.

Elaine Qiu, Crossing, 2022, enamel and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 86

(TB):

Renée Stout has noted that “stillness” as a concept reflected in her exhibition “The Oracle Said “Be Still” can be both passive and active. Would you describe your painting as cross section of those two ideas?

(EQ):

The pandemic brought about a global pause, and this involuntary stillness was thrust upon the masses. The stillness brought forth introspection, asking individuals to ponder their role and relevance in a world that seemed suddenly unfamiliar.

A pandemic painting, “Crossing” explores the dual stillness that Renée Stout mentioned. Just like the pandemic experiences of many, my past few years have also been filled with surprises, losses, and restructuring. I spent countless hours in the studio reflecting on my father’s final years and his passing. Much of my work from this period emphasizes the fading of things, the conclusion of various aspects of life, and the elusive, intangible aspect of our existence. Viewers have repeatedly highlighted the palpable stillness in “Crossing”: while the imagery and brushstrokes appear distraught and fragmented, they seem frozen in time. Much like the eerie silence before a storm and the desolation that follows a flood, the stillness shows up through these liminal moments in the painting in the form of waiting or listening. Only within the static silence do we allow the voice of uninvited questions to grow louder. After the stillness in the studio, my paintings always emerge as questions rather than answers. I found that the enforced quietude of the pandemic and the deliberate calm sought through art had, in tandem, guided me toward complex, nuanced questions that resist simplistic answers, questions that disturb, intrigue, evolve, and expand.

Some storms invigorate life in their aftermath, while others clear away the outdated and broken, but invariably, something is often left in their wake—the foundation of the new life. I hope that the questions born from the quiet moments of the pandemic years will actively and consciously guide us as we move forward in the remaking of the world.

(TB):

“Crossing” employs the use of one-point perspective. Yet, in the context of liminality, this point in space can also be viewed as temporal or indeterminate. What did you have in mind by using this compositional device?  

(EQ):

One-point perspective is a frequently used art device in traditional Western paintings, particularly court and religious art works.It has almost become synonymous with authority, conventions, and predetermined truth.

At first glance, “Crossing” seems to embrace the classic one-point perspective, with its vanishing point drawing the viewer deep into the canvas, lending the painting both depth and realism. Yet the artwork subtly incorporates multiple perspectives. I intentionally kept these deviations to a minimum, making them discreetly interwoven throughout the painting. This nuanced approach invites viewers to reconsider their perceptions of reality and challenge the reliability of pre-established truths. The encounter with the painting affirms that what we see and know are simply slices of a more complete, comprehensive reality. It allows us to contemplate the unseen forces and overarching patterns at play. I believe such a vantage point offers solace and refuge from the tumult and chaos happening right now.

This moderate method of distortion also suggests that embracing differences doesn’t necessarily mean overturning established systems or norms entirely; rather, minor adjustments or small accommodations can lead to a more inclusive and harmonious collective existence.

(TB):

What is most evident about “Crossing” is the vibratory surface of the painting that shimmers like planes of darkness and light. Is it your intention to exploit the interplay of these opposing values?

(EQ):

Everything is a phenomenon of energy. The flow of energy, by its very nature, requires a preexisting polarity, such as high and low, or hot and cold.The interconnectedness of opposites has persistently emerged in my work. I have made monochromatic works. The interplay of lights and darks is not simply a matter of aesthetics; it’s an exploration of the inherent dualities within nature and the human spirit. I often contemplate juxtaposed realities: power and vulnerability, rebirth and decay, life and death, sorrow and joy, mystery and conviction, as well as the far and near enemies of these notions.

There is an old Chinese saying: Cherish the shadow and uphold the light(知陰守陽). Only by recognizing one’s own darkness can one see the light in others. By acknowledging our limitations, we pave the way for exploring greater possibilities. This exploration becomes particularly poignant when considering the contradictions in our human experience, especially in an era dominated by information silos and echo chambers. Embracing dissonant thoughts and clashing convictions might offer profound insight as we confront the great divide in our contemporary social-political landscape. 

(TB):

It is quite interesting to view your painting alongside works by Cianne Fragione, Ellyn Weiss, Trevor Young, Sharon Farmer, and Joyce Wellman. Do you recognize some commonalities in their work? 

(EQ):

In the exhibition, Renée Stout creates a contemplative space for viewers to revisit the stillness that permeated the pandemic. During the pandemic, even though there were other people around, like family members or even a pet, the truth is that each of us navigated this shared experience on our own. In reality, this is also how we navigate our individual lives—alone. Almost every piece showcased in this exhibition was born out of solitude.I am interested in painting the unspeakable and the unnamable—the things that keep us awake at 3 a.m.—the grief, the longing, the joy tinged with pain, and the sweet sorrow—the things that torment us while sustaining us most. To echo James Baldwin, “these were the very things that linked us to every living soul, past and present.”

Moving through the exhibition, I felt a familiar resonance in the works of my fellow artists. Each piece emanates its own unique radiance, encapsulating our individual triumphs and tribulations. Over the past years, we’ve navigated through calamities, dysfunction, and chaos. Many times, we had to stop and feel for the ground. But here, together, our artworks map out this cartography that reveals the edges and frontiers of our inner world as well as the ever-changing collective consciousness whose contours are formed by our stories told in silent studio hours and our stances held in stillness. It’s in this space that we come to an embrace, to a recognition of our common humanity, and to a glimpse of possibilities.

 

The Oracle Said “Be Still”

by Tim Brown, Hillyer Director

The exhibition “The Oracle Said ‘Be Still’,” curated by Renée Stout, on view at IA&A at Hillyer from October 7–October 29, 2023, embraces a paradox that recognizes the value of stillness without eliminating the possibility of “speaking truth to power.” The idea for the exhibition was taken from a print that Renée Stout worked on during the height of the COVID pandemic. The work was prompted by DC gallerist George Hemphill whose intention was to keep art alive and accessible during a time when people were less likely to engage with art. By evoking the oracle, Stout resonated with something happening in the universe that compels us to be still. In the work, Stout depicted the oracle in the form of a disembodied head with a speech bubble uttering the phrase that would later become the underlying concept for her exhibition. 

The Oracle Said Be Still

Generally speaking, an oracle is a person or thing that provides insight into the future, a portal through which the gods speak to everyday people. Stout presented the oracle as an all-encompassing voice that compels everyone to hit a “reset button” and reflect on the challenges we face, so that we can act in a more informed way. During her conversation with Camille Brown, Assistant Curator at The Phillips Collection, Stout cited a passage from her notebook which guided her preparations for the exhibition:

“Life is fragile. Nature is fragile. Democracy is fragile. These truths can get buried behind the distractions and noise of daily life. One of the lessons COVID presented, which some people recognized while others did not, is that sometimes the universe needs for us to be still, so that we can take the time to ponder, become aware, and make valuable connections between events that are happening all around us that affect us all either directly or indirectly. Sometimes quiet is required to see clearly and listen intently, so that the universe can bestow its natural order upon things and restore the balance that it is always seeking to create. The oracle said, ‘be still’.”

While stillness is a focal point, Stout did not intend for it to be viewed in opposition to political action. As someone who is known for her political activism (if you follow her on social media), Stout views stillness as a liminal space, a spiritual, intellectual, and somatic space that is not dormant, but active—a wellspring from which human thought and action is made possible. 

First and foremost, Stout is a practicing artist based in DC, so she set out to identify other artists in the area whose work embodied the same spirit and ideas she had in mind for the show. As someone described as a “do-it-yourself conjurer,” Stout’s approach to selecting artists was not unlike the “Spirit Detector,” a mixed media work she created in 2014. She “detected” the spirit of these fellow artists—root conjurors—who she felt had the capacity to give voice and visual form to the stillness that nurtures us through challenging times.

The exhibition features 8 artists: Sharon Farmer, Joyce Wellman, Ellyn Weiss, Elaine Qiu, Cianne Fragione, Cheryl Edwards, Adrienne Gaither, and Trevor Young. Stout chose four photographs by Sharon Farmer: three of Bernice Fergerson, and one with the grave of Medgar Evers. Stout described these works as bookends for the exhibition, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and death, joy and sadness, undergirded by the silence of the human spirit to sustain us over generations. Stout also explains why Fergerson was chosen as the signature piece for the exhibition:

“One of the reasons why I picked this work was the synchronicity—her dress had all these O’s on it and then the hula hoop forms an O—she is the oracle.”

Sharon Farmer

Stillness and the oscillation between abstraction and material form is manifested in ways that vary in the works by each artist in the exhibition. “Crossing,” a painting by Elaine Qiu, reverberates with fractals of light that seem to break through the cacophony of societal noise, leaving us in the interstices of silence that compel us to be still amid the confusion. Cheryl Edwards is summoned into the stillness with “The Old Nubian” through her use of pulp painting, embedded with Mexican milagros metals to soothe the spirit and pave the way for self-decolonization. Cianne Fragione is inspired by “Fragments of Carrara” marble that embodies the primacy of hue and form that speak to you directly, uninterrupted by “noise” and artificial mark-making. Adrienne Gaither’s “Comin’ Thru” is part of a series called “Meditations on Brown,” color field landscapes that serve as a form of escapism as she reimagines a new place of possibility. 

Sharon Farmer, Cheryl Edwards, Adrienne Gaither, Elaine Qiu, Cianne Fragione, Joyce Wellman, Trevor Young, Ellyn Weiss

Inspired by climate change, Ellyn Weiss’s “Form-Undentified Specimen 21” is a reflective response to ice receding in the north pole, using wax as a corollary to the inverse effect of flatness and its emergence as a rising man-made form. Joyce Wellman has two etchings in the show (“Third Eye” and “Untitled Sky”) that are created through stream of consciousness, conjuring in the process undersea creatures and a third eye with powers of perception beyond ordinary sight. And finally, Stout’s hoodoo premonitions led her to the work by Trevor Young. Young’s “Hub” explores the power of man-made things by taking them out of their context and re-presenting them as meditations on abstraction and mysticism. 

Installation shots

One cannot fully understand Stout’s vision for the exhibition without seeing the works collectively in the space. The light throughout both galleries is toned down, as if immersed in islands of solitude, only to be summarily awakened by periodic flashes of light, color, texture, and form that guide you through the stillness and the impending forms of abstraction and figuration.

Through Stout’s careful planning of her exhibition, the oracle provides many opportunities to contemplate the value of stillness. Visitors are more apt to feel grounded after seeing the exhibition and better prepared to take on the noise that awaits us during these tumultuous times.

______

Author: Timothy Brown, Director, IA&A at Hillyer

Note: If you do have an opportunity to see the exhibition, visit our YouTube channel to hear talks by the artists and a conversation with Renée Stout and Camille Brown, Assistant Curator at The Phillips Collection.

Q and A with Tiffany Chen

An Interview with Advocate Member, Tiffany Chen

Tiffany Chen, Advocate Member

Tim Brown, Hillyer Director (TB):

Tell us about yourself. What is your profession and/or areas of interest?

Tiffany Chen (TC):

My profession is so DC! 

I’m a federal government consultant. With two different business degrees (logistics, and international financial management), my day-to-day is focused on technical account management. 

My personal interests are mainly the arts (collecting and creating), as well as my adorable puppy Ernest “Ernie” Hemingway, who is the cutest.

(TB):

You are an avid art collector. What kind of art do you collect?

(TC):

My art collecting began simply because I love art. 

Attending the art fairs in New York: the Amory, Frieze, TEFAF, plus Art Basel, Art Basel Miami, Design Week Vienna, Venice Biennale, I began by acquiring pieces that caught my eye, but lacked a larger theme or purpose. 

In 2018, while visiting the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I learned that 87% of all the artwork in American art museums were created by men! 

That day, I decided to only collect from living female artists.

I began with signed originals, prints, and books from my favorite, established female artists, such as Judy Chicago and Donna Huanca. 

Luckily, many of my closest friends are also amazing emerging artists! 

Lillian Ling (poetry, multi-media embroidery, and graphic design), Sunbin Song (performance and multimedia), and Shannon Stichman (oil paintings), all create spectacular works, which I am blessed enough to sneak-peek and call dibs!

(TB):

You have acquired some artworks from Hillyer artists over the past year. Can you tell us what inspired you about those pieces?

(TC):

Thus far in 2023, I have acquired two pieces from Hillyer artists: the first from Elaine M. Erne and most recently, from Katherine Burling. 

Elaine M. Erne’s pencil drawings are extraordinary, simultaneously other-worldly and every day; all meticulously hand-drawn, eerie, and brilliant. Her Instagram name is “lovedrawingbunnies” so Erne’s “Lovely Bunny” had to come home with me. 

Katherine Burling’s mixed-media collages instantly drew me in at First Friday, where we spoke candidly about her art inspiration and creation. I love that her works are historical yet modern, appealingly comforting but deeply dark.

Both artists’ works portray different aspects of what it means to be a modern woman, a question I ask myself constantly. As an only child and only daughter, I find solace in this artistic sisterhood. 

 

(TB):

When did you first hear about Hillyer?

(TC):

The Hillyer displayed itself to me as the Sphynx appears in the myths: by luck. 

In college, I was fortunate to have had an amazing honors architecture professor, who opened the city’s doors to me. As such, Washington, D.C. was a familiar friend and I adored visiting the Phillips Collection for hours and hours. 

Before one of these adorations, I happened to walk behind the carriage house, and there was the Hillyer! I walked in and was immediately impressed by the gallery’s dedication to curating and supporting emerging artists, and have returned every since… so for nearly 20 years.

(TB):

Why did you decide to become a member?

(TC):

At this point in my life, I am old enough, and brave enough, to know what I like. 

I like the Hillyer! 

From the amazing art, to the gallery space, to the people who breathe life into the organization, I feel at home here. Maybe because I’ve been hanging around the Hillyer for over a decade!

(TB):

If you had to describe Hillyer to a friend or stranger, what would you tell them?

(TC):

The Hillyer is a hidden gem.

“Selling” the Hillyer is easy. Centrally located in DuPont, the Hillyer is the perfect locale for my friends from all over the city to meet-up and experience amazing emerging art in a beautiful space, at one’s own pace. With a consistently full calendar of programs and events, the Hillyer combines beauty, ease, and comfort. An absolute dream!

Q & A with Adam Odomore

Questions by Tim Brown, Hillyer Director

(TB):

When did you become interested in collecting art?

Adam Odomore, Curator (AD):

I first developed an interest in collecting as a high school student at the age of 17. I did not have knowledge of art or collecting; I just loved it for what I saw. Growing up in Nigeria, art was something I was not exposed to. In junior secondary school, I paid a friend to draw skeleton figures for my biology classes because I lacked the skill or confidence to draw. In 2010, I moved from Nigeria to Texas to finish my senior year of high school. I met a classmate, a girl whose artwork I admired. I commissioned her to make a portrait of my baby brother Logan for his first birthday. I wanted to give him something as a gift to capture his being and beauty in a picture that my aunt had taken of him. This was the first original work of art I ever purchased, and which still remains at my parents’ home in Texas. When I attended college. I obtained prints for my dorm, and later acquired paintings from my friend and college mate Ryan Runcie during his solo show in Austin, Texas. I got two small portraits from that show and later commissioned another small portrait of myself of the same size as the first two. All 3 works just got reunited after being separated for about 4 years or so. I am really happy about that.

(TB):

In addition to being an avid collector, you are also a practicing artist. How does your personal work inform your interests as a collector and curator?

(AD):

These days, I find it hard to call myself an artist because I only create art that I enjoy and love for me first. It’s rare that I show my work. I create art for my own collection in a variety of mediums and these are works I love to live with. The works that I create and collect fit seamlessly because as a curator, I am curating my own collection as well. So, within my collection, they are sub-genres and multiple exhibitions based on ideas and stories I want to tell, feel and wish are being told based on how I see the world and my experience. For me, creating art that I want to live with and collecting works that mirror my desires and how I want to live is sort of very autobiographical and therapeutic for me. Because in 2020 during the pandemic art literally saved my life. I found my deep passion for creating and working with art through a tough period in my life, being unemployed and lacking health. It has allowed me to heal, reflect, deepen my awareness and through literature and written works by black women, I was able to enter into and come into a new way of being and seeing things that help me free myself from expectations or ideas of societal norms. Art helps shift my being. So today, I am deeply aware of and grateful for all of these experiences and conversations that I get to experience and come into through art by being a participant in the spaces where these works are having conversation with each other and speaking with a realness that we don’t get to experience in contemporary society and on issues that are important to me.

So, because of this I get to approaching the work with empathy and an openness to understanding. Engaging in honest dialogue. Curating and collecting are about stewarding with care. Creating an impressive collection with accessibility. In my work as a curator and my journey as a collector, I desire to create a space where people can feel seen and know that their own stories and dreams matter. Those at the margins are now the center. A soft and gentle collection that results from intention and opportunity. One that reflects and mirrors life and who I am, who I want to be more of. Living a soft, gentle and slow life is what I do and want for myself. So, my collection is one, that through my interaction with it helps me become more of and helps me imagine that which I desire most, to be at ease and living a whole and salubrious life with tenderness. A sum of my creation, collection and curation together as exceptionally unified whole that perfectly reflects the evolution of my eye, experiences, growth, taste and desire for change. Creating, collecting and curating art for me is about affirming black humanity through the arts.

(TB):

Have you curated other exhibitions? If so, what was the focus of those shows and how were they similar and/or different from your current exhibition at Hillyer?

Yes, I curated two other exhibitions before this one. My first show was for Marquell Simms titled In So Many Words at the Homme gallery in DC. In 2022, I curated my first conceptual exhibition for the Zawadi gallery and boutique titled What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? The exhibition featured five multigenerational Black women from the diaspora working in the DMV area.

The exhibition was about reclamation, reaffirmation, self-representation, and a homage to and of the self–a celebration. Centered on intentional ideas, experiences, and moods, each work in the exhibit embodied elements not allowed us in society, evoking intentional healing, devotion, self-reflection, and prayer, as if part of an emotional ecosystem. Like my current show, the exhibit was about helping people heal and finding ways to love and feel safe.

My personal journey as a curator is reflected in this radical approach to truth telling, while providing safe spaces to express ourselves openly. Writings by Black women like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, etc., have helped me free myself, while helping me to articulate the broader dimensions race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, geography, etc. within a patriarchal, capitalist, white-supremacist, imperialist world.

I curate to help us re-imagine another way of being and seeing. As Constance Baker Motley said, sometimes what we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.

(TB):

I noticed that aspects of your work are informed by black feminist thought. Why do you feel this is important when addressing care and blackness?

I like this question because I think first it lets me give thanks to Black women for their work in helping us free ourselves. Black feminist thought is important in this work of care and blackness specifically because Black women writers, artists, mothers, sisters, friends who are truth tellers, seekers, healers, archivists, caregivers who have found ways to pass their knowledge and experiences on to future generations like us.

We now have the opportunity to use this knowledge, oral wisdom, and history to articulate our suffering, speak out, claim our own healing, joy, peace, love and happiness. As Zora Neale Hurston once said, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

I think that we need to acknowledge and celebrate the Black feminist origins of care. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” These are the words, by Audre Lorde, a Black, civil rights activist, writer, lesbian and feminist that captures the idea of care that will be alien to many today, especially when compared to the current, whitewashed and highly commercialized interpretation. And agreeing with Bryony Porteous-Sebouhian from their writing on the same subject, I know that care as it relates to blackness, as it was for Audre Lorde, wasn’t about buying a candle, a new herbal tea, or any other form of consumerism. Care was a radical act when occurring in a space where something tries to kill you every day and fail. That is care worth celebrating when you can build a sustainable life even within that. “The ultimate act of resistance is self-love” (Billie Zangewa) and “in a moment of tenderness, the future seems possible” (Saidiya Hartman). Black women are the foundation of freedom and ultimate care. As the Combahee Collective espoused, if Black women are free, we are all free because that would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.

(TB):

Similarly, a major focus of your current exhibition is about providing care and safe spaces for black bodies in the context of a patriarchal, capitalist, white-supremacist, imperialist world. Why do you feel this is an important topic to address in today’s art world?

(AD):

In looking at the complexity and ways in which Black bodies and people of color have to navigate a world where most of the things they are thrown at is anti- to their identity, I do believe that intentionally creating spaces where people can see themselves in the works and their being affirmed, their stories validated and centered is very important in this culture and art world. The complex dynamics of both institutional and interpersonal racism for people of color are compounded when they interact with other socio-economic factors is one thing I learned and first-hand even most recently. Art is and can be an avenue for self-expression, re-imagination, interrogating and transformation. And art spaces can function as that safe space for dialogue. I think this is why museums as cultural institution and a space of convening for many people of all different background is important and need to keep evolving and find ways to include more diversity in their collection, programming and in their staff, so it represents the community and the ideas that are important to them.

(TB):

Art and exhibition spaces can redefine how we view and understand black people throughout the African diaspora. How do you envision your practice going forward? 

(AD):

At this time, I am really grateful to be doing what makes me happy and have an impact. Art is a tool to help people heal and to re-imagine the changes they desire to live a whole and sustainable life. I hope to keep using this tool to help us get closer to our higher good with hope of one day leading an organization that focuses in part or solely on that. In the meantime, I am excited to keep growing, making meaningful connections and finding ways to support artists and communities. Creating a space to re-frame our narratives is intentional.

As Dr. Samella Lewis once remarked: “Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity.  It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.”

Neville Barbour: Blessings in Gray

A review by Elsabé Dixon

Neville Barbour states:

Blessings in Gray “is a visual exploration of the narratives that define us. It explores what it is to be human and remarks on the ambivalence of that perspective. Neville explores how conflict can take us out of our comfort zone, yet become a force for change.”

CONVERSATIONS ABOUT STORY IMAGES

Every Image tells a story, but the good stories sometime need more time and attention to unfold fully. On a winter Friday afternoon in February of 2023, I spoke to Neville Barbour about the nine realistic figure drawings in his solo show at the Hillyer Gallery in Washington, DC. Each drawing seemed to hold complex symbols one could recognize, but the arrangements seemed to have a structure that made what you were looking at almost “abstract”.

A figure with angel wings, standing against the backdrop of a large detailed moon is simply called Monday, and Barbour explains that he has just become a father, and that having a child makes Monday more palatable. I did a double take… how does that statement connect to a mystical angel winged figure standing as if on a stage in front of a large projection of the moon with its pitted and cratered surface? The detail was exquisite, but what is the meaning exactly? A mixture of satellite imagery, with what looks like a historic priestess figure from an old opera photograph and the Art Nuevo wings from a stained glass window were the only references I had in front of me. Like a random but complex dream sequence/Dada image, perhaps what Barbour is saying is that one should not look at his images as you look at a Dutch still-life with defined and absolute symbols, but instead take an emotional stance. How does the title, Monday, and this winged figure against the backdrop of the moon resonate with YOU, the viewer? 

I was curious – where would this conversation to clarify meaning lead? The second image we both looked at was Trap Wednesday.  A masked African American male figure sits on a white throne with a black crow on his shoulder and horns, sticking out from under a long white beard. His fingers and neck is adorned with gold and the word “love” is formed on the right hand, and the word “hate” is formed by the rings on the left hand. A spear with an engraved face, leans up against the left leg of the throne. Next to the figure sits a large, hairy dog.  Again, Barbour was very forthcoming about being an African American male artist in DC, and that in being so there is always the question around the philosophical statement of “doing the right thing.”  He said he based this seated character loosely on Spike Lee. Behind the seated figure is what looks like an Aztec or Mesopotamian Symbol in gold.

St George the Dragon depicts an equestrian figure riding not a horse, but an African steer. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, George’s slaying of the dragon may be a Christian version of the legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued Andromeda from a sea monster. It is a theme much represented in art, the saint frequently being depicted as a youth wearing knight’s armor with a scarlet cross. While Barbour depicts the rider’s lower half as a replica of the medieval armor of St. George, the top half reveals a bear chested rider with patterned dots often associated with tribal coming-of-age rites. This mixture of West African mythology and an equestrian war figure, or Saint-to-stave-off-evil, can become a nuisance during times of peace, stated Barbour.  And I was reminded again not to tag the symbols as real meaning, but to glide on them as clouds float across a horizon.

You Remind Me depicts a beautiful, professionally dressed, African American seated female figure, with a fox fur around her neck. She is placed in front of a traditional enlarged checkered pattern. This, Barbour claims, is a dialogue between generations. Old photographs, Barbour says, often make one recall those who live in the present.  Perhaps the most compelling drawing in this series is a drawing of six children. Five small black boys stand in the background, while a young girl with a patterned dress curls up with two muzzled hyenas looking straight at the viewer.  The title, Lord of the “Flys” conjures up the title of William Golding’s novel. Barbour discloses that he grew up surrounded by strong female figures. “Hyenas are a matriarchal symbol and moves away from the concept of the patriarchal lion. This animal changes the viewpoint. Expands one’s perspective,” he says. 

Fisherman of Souls, depicts an old man in a triangle looking straight at the viewer, with a landscape in the background and two abstract white circles floating in the foreground toward the left and the right of the old man. Two heads (represented by the circles) – New Baby (Personal experience) – Old Man (Perhaps, a way of looking back at the Old Year and looking toward the New Year, 2023). Idia, shows a young girl with eyes diverted. Barbour says he has become fascinated by the role Africa played in participating in the slave trade. “We live in a society where not everyone can win, where there is no good choice,” says Barbour.  Salt, is named for the thing that allows us to “taste”. Far from the “Morton’s Salt Girl” in a raincoat under an umbrella, this drawing depicts a sultry and confident young lady in cascading silks, shading herself from the African sun. The next drawing, Janus, depicts the Roman God as an African American man in medieval armor. Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings. 

Every drawing in this exhibition holds known symbols, but they become plastic and ephemeral. They are not static, but instead become less concrete and more malleable. In many ways, these drawings turn on its head the way we look at figurative work. It takes the images that we see, and the meaning we tie to it, and push it into the background. These figurative images – that reiterate symbols, pushing at the outer limitations of symbols and all the multiple meanings they can hold –  translate into widening perspectives and larger cultural doorways. 


Neville Barbour
Archetypes
March 4-April 2, 2023
IA&A at Hillyer

To learn more about the artist visit nevillebarbour.com