By JONATHAN OROZCO April, 2023
What I love about Ron Norsworthy, a truly multidisciplinary artist, and his art is its authenticity and outspokenness. It reconciles culture, history, and lived experience, in a vernacular of design that’s distinctly afrofuturist and afropessimistic - without contradiction.
Among his roster of accomplishments include moments of high art, like participation in exhibitions at the Studio Museum, but also in ways artists rarely get to engage with popular culture. He’s done set design for the musical artists of our time, like Arethra Franklin, Foxy Brown in collaboration with Jay-Z, and the canonical performance with Madonna and Britney Spears in which they kiss. Even the Obama family has been looped into one of his projects - in the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony of 2009. He’s a big deal to say the least.
I met Norsworthy last year during a regular studio visit, at a very serendipitous and resonant time, in which we talked about everything in the universe, from colonialism to Spongebob Squarepants, from racism to David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs.
What is of interest in his practice is its positionality and commentary within the contemporary art world, operating within a commercial framework, yet still engaging with theories of beauty, the end result being art centering black and queer cultural life in the United States - perspectives that are overlooked by the dominant white gaze, and in recent years, being subsumed and taken by white cultural life, hetero and homo.
Here, Norsworthy speaks his truth as a multidisciplinary artist, and his own lived experience in the world and how he engages with his art. When I speak to him, I feel heard and respected as a human, something that isn’t in plentiful supply in American society. I hope that reading this conversation you feel seen and heard too.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Jonathan Orozco: One thing you mentioned in our last conversation was mirrors. I remember taking an art history methodology class and reading this article and it had a really wonderful anecdote of a European woman looking at herself in a mirror. She woke up everyday and looked at herself, and this Indigenous person went up to her and said something like, “are you afraid if you don’t look at yourself in the mirror your soul will leave you?”
I want to mirror a question that I wasn’t able to answer, the “what motivates you?” question. You threw it at me, and I didn’t give you an adequate answer and I’ve been thinking about it. A lot of people have been asking me what it is that motivates me about my life and what I’m doing, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s pleasure. That’s the thing that I care about. I want to experience joy and happiness and make friendships and things like that. I want to turn it on you and ask you what motivates you, whether it be personal or in relation to art.
Ron Norsworthy: A lot of things motivate me. I like to talk a lot, but I actually get really excited about the world of ideas and how ideas are expressed, and I enjoy art's capacity to communicate ideas in really interesting ways, so I think it’s my way of talking.
I like to connect with people and there’s a great amount of care I like to put… It’s weird to call yourself generous, but it feels good to give, so maybe what you were saying about joy resonates with me; pleasure and joy, giving, sharing what I know, sharing my experiences, it makes me feel alive and connected. It makes me feel fully inhabited in this body, like I own it, like I own the space that this body is taking up, I own the oxygen that this body requires to keep itself going. I get to own the space that I'm in and somehow building out a world aesthetically is a manifestation of that.
I’m just trying to put things in the world that express where I am, express who I am, what I am, and where I'm coming from. The “why,” I don't know if I answered the why in that question. I think it's more about “I'm compelled to.” It's like asking me why am I breathing? I just do. I guess I'm made to do what I'm doing. “Why” feels extraneous, maybe it’s more like… “why not?”
It’s the most meaningful thing that I can think of to do with my time, and it makes me feel good, so why wouldn't I do it? And that's with all the commensurate struggles that come with it. It informs every aspect of how I live, and how I'm perceived in the world, and how I perceive the world.
There was a time in my practice where I put a lot of emphasis on what I wanted to make as opposed to how I wanted to make, and I feel how I want to make is at least as important as what. I am that I am…. So I make. Why do I do it? Because I do it, period.
JO: I want to pivot toward your paintings. I’ve been thinking a lot about the process for the painting that you were working on in Omaha. I’m just curious to know more about your process and creation and everything that goes into making these works.
RN: Well, there’s a need that I have as a queer person of the global majority to speak about, again a very personal lens, to speak about this built world that we’re living in and how it speaks to dominant ruling groups, meaning it speaks to a white supremacist structure when we look at our art and we look at our design, all of the cultural material that’s been revered and elevated within and because of this structure. So my paintings are a way of pushing back and low-key interrogating material signifiers of social and economic class.
I’m reframing it through a very personal lens and it also has a very afrofuturist angle or perspective to it in the sense that I am writing new narratives, I’m writing alternate narratives that makes us think differently, and when I say us, I mean makes Americans primarily think differently about our history and our material cultures and the ways that whiteness and the project of whiteness has been centered.
My paintings feature black people and center black people and reference films and pop culture, but instead of having us as the periphery or the source of the material that is appropriated by whiteness, I just erase the whiteness and center blackness. That's a big part of what I’m thinking about when I'm making compositions.
The way that they’re made, most of those paintings aren't flat, they're paintings in relief, they're layers of material stacked on top of each other. They have a dimension to them. It’s for me a way of speaking about how we construct our lives… layer by layer.
So looking through my queer black intersectional lens, a lot of things that white hetero folks take for granted, I can't take for granted. I have to assert what I want in this world in order to have it. That's my way of queering the American Dream and saying, “Oh, it doesn't just happen. No, it doesn't just automatically happen. How quaint, what a privilege it is to think that these things just fall into your lap and that life is just beautiful like this.” No. it's a construction, there's a bit of artifice there too. My paintings begin to engage that notion of artifice and construction too, the intentionality of how we build our lives, and it's absolutely through my intersectional lens.
JO: I want to ask you more about the Afrofuturist aspect of your paintings. When I think about Afrofuturism, I think of this particular artist named April Bey who literally depicts Black people going to space in space suits living on this planet called Atlantica.
RN: I think a lot of people have this literal idea of futurality when they think about Afrofuturism… and it’s not wrong. My approach is a little different, though. I see Afrofuturism as simply speaking to possibilities. Sometimes those possibilities are set in a futuristic time and place. Mine are set in the now or in the past. Actually, a lot of my work is intentionally atemporal.
We have this very monolithic idea of what Afrofuturism is and it’s typically via comics, because that's what has been primarily put out in the culture, that’s what receives traction, but Afrofuturism is much more robust, fluid and complex than that, and I think it provides space for diverse interpretations and ways of engaging its potential. Sometimes Afrofuturism is dystopic, it actually intersects with Afropessimism, and says “you know what, we’re fucked, and were going to be fucked forever.”
I think of it and use it in a different way. I'm actually looking at the richness of black cultural life and assuming, and this is what's Afrofuturist about what I do, I'm assuming that there was no slavery, that there’s no economic inequality. I'm assuming that the ways that white affluent life has been portrayed in Hollywood films is real. These people in these movies have endless money, and they live in beautiful houses, drive beautiful cars, and they’re beautiful to look at, and their kids are well behaved; there’s this ideal that is set forth, and it’s all accomplished without effort.
In my work, I am proposing a similar aesthetic of comfort, ease and prosperity but it centers Blackness, and that is very Afrofuturist when you consider how the project of whiteness has disenfranchised Black people from having our part of the American Dream. If we’re being honest, there's always going to be this fighting to get in, fighting just to stay alive, let alone thrive, the normalization of struggle and resilience, which is hypocritical and gross when you think about the wealth that was created from the historical exploitation of Black labor. In the worlds that I create, there’s no fighting to get in. If you're Black, you're in. The worlds revolve around a kind of ease and affluence; nobody that’s depicted in my paintings seems poor. That’s Afrofuturist: All Black people are wealthy, how about that?
I also want to say that just like there's not one way to be Black, there's not one way to engage Afrofuturism. An example is my installation Reparation Tower, which is a sales office for a 40-story, luxury residential tower in the shape of a fist. That’s completely Afrofuturist (and perhaps Afropessimist with its segregated entrances), and it’s not set in a faraway, space-y future, but rather a contemporary Harlem.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with anyone dealing with a science fiction future. That’s great, we need that too, but I also think that we need something based in the here and the now. We’re all just offering strategies to allow us to imagine different realities, ways to imagine something other than just the oppression of Black people and the struggle for equality. I feel that’s a really tiresome conversation that keeps us stuck. I actually would like to speak more about what equity looks like, that's what we’re really fighting for right? But we’re so exhausted from fighting that we haven't made any space to contemplate what joy looks like, what belonging looks like, or what prosperity looks like on our own terms.
Something I keep front of mind is that clip of a Toni Morrison interview where she cautions us that the single biggest goal of racism is distraction. To keep us distracted. And I don’t want to be distracted. I want to be dreaming and enjoying my life the way everyone else would want to, regardless of race, which is an arbitrary construct anyway, but very real and of great consequence for those of us that are not part of the dominant white mainstream. It’s a way of exercising resistance in my work, and it's not resistance for the sake of resistance. I wish I didn't have to. It is living in this body and through my lens, again, it's like breathing, and that's why, for me, art opens up a new space to imagine life differently. I get to dream when I make art and I think that's an important thing, too. WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author