Whitehot Magazine

Beyond Borders: This Transatlantic Exhibition Challenges Perceptions of Black Manhood With Black Portraiture

(L) Gordon Shadrach, Courtesy of Ishmil Waterman, Toronto, Canada. (R) Kachelle Knowles, Courtesy of The D’Aguilar Foundation, Nassau, Bahamas.

Gordon Shadrach & Kachelle Knowles: When the Bread They Have Cast on the Waters Comes Floating Back

United Contemporary (Toronto)

February 16 through March 25 2023. 

Saturday Feb 18, 1-4pm. Public opening reception and artist talk. 

The D’Aguilar Foundation (Nassau)

March 23 through April 27th 2023.

By BYRON ARMSTRONG, February 2023 

Diaspora refers to the dispersion of people living in different lands. The Black diaspora is scattered across distances spanning miles, decades, and sometimes just the length of a conversation. Drop a stone into calm water and you’ll find an allegory for colonization — a ripple effect of refracted selves where the water was broken by outside influence. Blackness is not a monolith and yet, the social construct of race and the systems built to enforce it were replicated across colonies. This replication has led to a hive-mind understanding among Black folk of how violent tropes created to dehumanize them have given the state impetus to scrutinize and police them with impunity. This legacy follows us today in disproportionate deaths at the hands of police, and the lynch mob mentality of private citizens taking it upon themselves to levy justice against activity deemed suspicious. From the Americas to Europe and beyond, there are any number of “reasons” for Black males to die. “When the Bread They Have Cast on the Waters Comes Floating Back” interrogates how these aforementioned refracted selves are a ripple effect of colonization and white supremacy. Borrowed from the title of Baldwin’s nonfiction work entitled “No Name in The Street”, this Transatlantic collaboration between artists Gordon Shadrach (Toronto, Canada) and Kachelle Knowles (Nassau, Bahamas) is a duo-exhibition that will travel between their respective galleries — United Contemporary (Toronto, Canada) and The D’Aguilar Foundation (Nassau, Bahamas) — celebrating the Black male through figurative portraiture that challenges stereotypes. I had the opportunity to speak with both artists about the coming exhibitions and the dialogue they are attempting to have with the public through their work.

Byron Armstrong: This exhibition is an international collaboration traveling between Toronto, Canada, and Nassau, Bahamas. So what do you see as the intersecting ideas in your work?  

Kachelle Knowles: Gordon and I had a conversation about the theme itself, and I think the one thing that we intersected with was the visibility and freedom of the black male. I know he spoke about going to a mostly very white school where he felt like an outcast or exotified and alone. In The Bahamas, although it seems reversed, there’s still a Eurocentric standard applied to how Black males are scrutinized. It starts in school with rules limiting head and facial hair growth, the wearing of jewelry like stud earrings, and even how you wear your uniform. I feel like it's targeted towards their Blackness because they’re told ‘you can’t get a job with an afro or locs. You can't get a job with a beard or just looking the way you do, which has nothing to do with being sanitary. 

Gordon Shadrach: Kachelle talked about the idea of tourists feeling uncomfortable when they see Black male Bahamians enjoying shared spaces with them. That's something that people involved in tourism don't want tourists to have to do. So for me, it became about exploring this idea of “Black boy joy” in the sense that just living our best lives, just being happy, can be threatening to people. I wanted my work to be about this expression of joy and this release of happiness. I'm starting to realize that to be black and happy in public spaces comes with an additional weight. So, Black joy becomes an act of rebellion because there are eyes on us as black men in society. 

BA: What are the intersections between your work, and what would you hope for someone from either the Americas, the Caribbean, or anywhere else to take from the work? 

KK: I'm just trying to piece together some of my and my friends' experiences in school because the experiences are so different, especially if you go to a private school versus a government school. Sometimes the differences can be very stark, especially when it comes to how many kids are in the classes, and how few boys are in the classes. I don’t know why that is, but addressing that in the work is something that hopefully spurs conversation about why that is. 

I also feel like we don't have enough visibility of ourselves in terms of our different skin tones and the visibility of black boys within our education system. I don't know what it would feel like to be in a system where you're taught that you're not that smart, with all these women around you leading this educational front, and you only have like six guys around you. That's a societal thing that is unintentionally internalized and I’m trying to force a dialogue about it.

GS: There is an intersection concerning examining how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The hard part about talking about this kind of stuff is I don't want it to be about the ‘oppressor's power’ because I think that's depressing. At the same time, you can't deny that there's a duality in society, whether it's here or in the Caribbean. If you look at a place like the Caribbean, which of course has been colonized to some extent like Canada, we're not supposed to be considered minorities down there. However, financial stability and wealth are still almost completely dependent on other people that may not feel comfortable around the Black population. For example, my dad built his retirement home in Dominica, which is a very small, very poor island, but there's a medical university there. So a lot of expats come. So of course, the doctors who are teaching there live in big houses in the mountains, but you have to drive through a neighborhood of tin shacks to get there. The university area has become Disneyland within a 10-15 year span with a whole slew of incredible restaurants. It's like two worlds. So I think where Kachelle and I have an understanding is in the sense of there being two worlds that we exist in. In the Caribbean, it's more of an obvious divide. I think here in North America, particularly in Toronto or Canada, the divides aren't as obvious. They're more sort of insidious, hidden, and systemic. So I'm looking at something in Toronto based more on something white people don't notice because they can't really see it — but Black people know exists.

Gordon Shadrach, Armour (2023), Oil on wood panel. Courtesy the artist and United Contemporary Gallery, Toronto.  

BA: Can you speak to how the work we're going to see speaks to these ideas? 

GS: My work focuses a lot on ‘the fence’ as an allegorical and literal barrier between Blackness and whiteness using shadow to reference the impact of those barriers. In Emerge (2023), there's a hand on a fence with a Black figure with dreadlocks and the fence is fading away. So to me, it's the idea of those barriers diminishing, but the work is also talking about how those barriers still leave scars. In Armour (2023), you can sort of see there's an opening around the guy's face, but a shadow remains. What I'm exploring here is this idea that, although we've been told that the barriers have come down and that we're free to be ourselves, they're still this invisible barrier. I'm almost looking at the shadows of scar tissue, the long-lasting effects of systemic racism, and how that impacts us from just being free to live our lives. This series of work I'm doing is about expressions of freedom, while also looking at the impact of what we've had to endure to get to this place while being aware of the barriers that still exist between us.

Kachelle Knowles, Take The Headboy Out of Your CV (2023), graphite, collage, colored pencil, silver leaf, acrylic on toned paper. 

KK: In the traditional school system, glory is found either in academics or sports. Those who are unable to succeed in their grades but excel greatly in sports become school heroes, which tends to be more directed toward boys. Their ability as physically fit runners who place in top rankings makes them popular and more worthy than they could ever be. He’s a Runner, He’s a Track Star (2023) is a portrait of the decorated sprinter adorned with gold medals around his neck and head. He’s made to appear like a contemporary gladiator exuding an almost godlike feeling. The color green also touches on the fact that most private and public schools are placed into four houses under the color scheme green, red, yellow, and blue. Each color has a prominence depending on the school. For me, green was usually at the top. Another piece, Take the Headboy Out of Your CV (2023), references accomplishments we tend to receive in our schooling that don’t have any merit outside of that setting. It also acts as a statement for boys who have been admonished for being “too smart” for their leadership abilities. The outfit is an over-the-top version of a government school uniform complete with plaid and school colors. The conversation in this piece is also around allowing kids to have more freedom in expressing their individuality in a more extreme way. The idea of taking care of oneself as a male and presenting in the best way is often seen as vain and takes on a homophobic nature. 

BA: Kachelle, I know some of this conversation for you is around gender identity, cultural preservation, and social relations in the Black Caribbean community. So what's the importance of those ideas to you on a personal level, and as a woman, what is your interest in this theme around Black males?  

KK: I think in The Caribbean, there’s a homophobic culture stemming from Christianity. It leads to a kind of gender performance around what we’re allowed to wear, like jewelry and clothing. Things have started to change culturally where, what was once thought of as feminine, has become neutral-gendered. For instance, my dad in his day wore tight-fitted pants and shoes with elevated heels, and that was considered masculine. Now, my generation has its own style, but there’s a strange homophobic reaction to it. In high school, a lot of guys would bring towels to school — since we live in a tropical climate and people sweat — but being kids, they would snap towels at each other so the school decided to ban towels. So guys wanting to use something to wipe their faces started using makeup sponges. I find it interesting that that would be considered such a ‘gay’ thing to do as opposed to being a solution to a problem. So I feel like I'm trying to document these kinds of little moments of people gendering objects and things where, contextually in different situations, those objects suddenly become gender-neutral instead of masculine or feminine. 

I've always been very close to black men. I grew up with two brothers. My dad used to take me to his job at a hotel, and that would be a babysitting moment for many of his male co-workers. I've grown up with predominantly male friends. I was also a tomboy. So there are so many things I've noticed about men that were just not being talked about. I feel like the conversation about the pressures being placed on women has overtaken any conversation about what's happening with our men, and all that starts super early. I feel like I was able to kind of breach that, and so much of it was eye-opening. My love for the men in my life  has allowed me to sort of express their stories. I never really want to say that I'm trying to speak on behalf of them, but I’m projecting my feelings and appreciation for them through art.

Gordon Shadrach, Emerge (2023), Oil on wood panel. Courtesy the artist and United Contemporary Gallery, Toronto.

BA: As this is about Black joy, specifically, Black boy joy as Gordon put it, what are the positive things you want people to take from this show? 

GS: The positive spin is about Black people's strength and resiliency, right? The fact that we’ve overcome so much and continue fighting to overcome more. But the reality is there’s a cost to that resiliency. Black people are lauded for being resilient. ‘When they go low, we go high’ and all that kind of stuff. We've done it. We've shown strength in situations where it's almost impossible to believe that people have survived and thrived. So it's hard for me to speak about resiliency as a positive thing right now because it impacts us. I think that's why I'm focusing right now on the idea of the shadow scars, and that there has been a lot of fighting to get to where we are. But it's not like you can just sort of sit back and relax and go, ‘Oh, well, we fought the good fight and now we're on the path.’ I think I'm also realizing that the gatekeepers aren't always the people that I expected them to be and there are gatekeepers within the black community that tend to impede progress as well.  

KK: For me, I think it's a combination of wanting to be seen as something other than what we have been presented as, while bringing a more intimate and empathetic view of the Black male. I'm very conscious of how Black men have been represented throughout history. Especially if it has to do with the Caribbean or tropics. So I try to be careful about not sexualizing Black male figures when I illustrate guys shirtless, or when I illustrate guys in certain positions. Nothing is exotified. I want people to go back into their own lives and sort of question the way that they perceive black men and boys, then also understand the role they play in the development of young boys and girls who will grow up to be men and women. Also, there are so many people that come to the Bahamas, and their expectation of your intellect, your culture, and how you should present yourself is so tourism based. It's always about the beaches and the ocean. They don't really understand that there's an intellectual conversation happening within the country. As an artist, I really want to present a different view of the islands that doesn’t erase the tourism narrative — because that’s still an important part of anybody's culture — however, when that narrative becomes aggressively stereotypical, it becomes more important to document the social realities of the Bahamian people through art because we have a lot to say. WM

Byron Armstrong

Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrong

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