By DONOVAN IRVEN, November 2020
Khari Turner is an artist transgressing the boundaries between the figurative and the abstract, between the particular and the universal. He is positioned in a transitional period for the art world as he moves from Forget What You Know, the group show that ran at Art of Our Century from October 15 to November 15, to a joint exhibition with Ashanté Kindle called Merging Headwaters that opens December 5 at Red Arrow Gallery in Nashville. Turner’s work can also be seen in the virtual exhibit, The Soles of My People, produced for Milwaukee’s Nō Studios.
In Forget What You Know, Turner was among the younger, up-and-coming artists presented by curator Kourosh Mahboubian alongside important Black artists from the previous generation such as Dindga McCannon and Tyrone Mitchell, as well as stalwarts of the New York art and publishing scenes like Anthony Haden-Guest. As with all intergenerational comparisons, we can see Turner’s work taking up some of the same concerns as the Black Artists Movement of the 1960s and -70s while developing an aesthetic both in response to and serving as a catalyst for our own times.
Black facial features figure prominently in Turner’s work. The nose and lips are almost always discernable, sometimes fully embodied, other times hovering within abstraction. These realistic depictions of identifiably Black features connect Turner to the Black is Beautiful aesthetic, which is rooted in négritude, a philosophical and aesthetic theory concerned with reclaiming the Black self-image and consciously promoting self-worth among people throughout the African diaspora. The idea of négritude was developed by Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Léon Damas in the 1930s and carried further by Frantz Fanon’s contributions to anti-colonial thought. In the United States, the Black is Beautiful slogan was popularized by a series of beauty pageants featuring only Black models called “Naturally,” organized by photojournalist Kwame Brathewaite and his brother Elombe Brath starting in 1962.
With the nose and lips foregrounded, Turner’s paintings celebrate the very features that have been negatively stereotyped and devalued by the aesthetics of white supremacy long dominant in an art world centered on the European tradition. However, because of the political achievements of, for instance, the Black Power movement, which embraced the Black is Beautiful ethos in its rhetoric and messaging, Turner faces less of a fight when it comes to featuring figures that are immediately identifiable as Black. Thus, there is something celebratory in these representations.
Turner is adamant that he does not depict abject Black trauma. The images remain hopeful, often colorful, the Black figures themselves surging waves that have overcome obstacles and will continue to overcome what lies ahead. When Malcolm X asks his Black audience, “Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips?” And the answer comes back - “white supremacists.” We might then respond with another question, “Who teaches you to love them again?” Surely, among those celebratory voices preaching self-love would be Khari Turner. At the same time, the art is not naïve, as if the struggle has been won, the battle fought and now over.
Indeed, in the world of contemporary art, it can seem as if there is a stark dichotomy for art in the public eye, and perhaps for Black art in particular. As the artist and activist Dread Scott commented to critic Tayler Renee Aldridge in 2015, “Either you’re helping the movement or you’re not. There’s no in-between.” Indeed, it might be more difficult to find someone among Black artists who is not telling Black people to love themselves, their features, their bodies.
Speaking with Turner, he was quick to remind me that celebration implies the struggle that came before and that still haunts it. It is appropriate, then, to recall these past artistic and political movements, not only because they might serve as inspiration, but because it was by their blood, sweat, and tears that real, concrete change was made such that we now find ourselves in the midst of an art market absolutely ravenous for figurative work by Black male artists highlighting recognizably Black bodies.
This too, this lucrative embrace of Black bodies by the art market, is something about which enthusiasm should remain tempered, if not entirely subdued. Certainly, Turner would not want his very identity, the place from which he paints, but also from which he lives, to be just another fad, a passing fancy of the people wealthy enough to capitalize on the political issues of the day. The predominance of Black figurative painters in the art market reflects, Turner suspects, the desire to signal inclusiveness in collecting through overt representation. Sure, it is good to include Black artists in a collection, but something else is achieved through the explicit inclusion of the Black form as well – that the piece is immediately recognized as Black and thus diversity is telegraphed without comment.
This tension between celebration and struggle, aware of the pressure to choose a side, or that you will be seen to have made a choice one way or the other, is especially apparent in Turner’s black and white works on paper.
In these compositions, the only colors outside of the grey scale between black and white are the features already discussed – noses and mouths, sometimes with teeth showing or bared – and hands. The facial features illuminated against the high-contrast backgrounds are sometimes placid, meditative, tranquil, while in other works they almost grimace or the mouth is distorted by a finger hooked into the side or pulling the lower lip down by index and pinky fingers. The array of facial expressions depicted in the series suggests that all modes of life, all emotion, arises from the background of the struggle. In some sense, the black and white series can be read as the struggle for recognition. The struggle for recognition that Black lives matter – but also, and crucially, that Black lives matter, across the range of human expression, in sadness as well as in joy, in pain as well as ecstasy.
To appreciate the symbolic element of the works is to track the movement between the figurative and the abstract, elements which Turner deftly navigates. Mood and movement are generated by the black and white lines and forms. Sometimes, clear lines with wide curves echo graffiti art, other times black watercolor-like blooms evoke a still pond or the pom poms of a distinct hairdo, at yet other times, the background evinces modernist geometry after George Braques. The result is a series with a varied emotional palette that foregrounds fragmented figures haunted by the struggle to present themselves authentically.
It was this struggle, and the frustrations embodied in the dizzy, swirling lines weaving through the head space behind Black features, that landed Turner’s work on the cover of Black Thought’s latest EP, Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able. The legendary Philadelphia rapper and front man of The Roots was made aware of Turner’s work through social media and the painter’s growing Instagram platform. This whole collaborative effort epitomizes yet another tension in the art world, a crossroads at which Turner stands in the shifting media landscape.
The relationship between staid art world institutions and social media is evolving but has been marked by disdain directed at social media popularity from the prestigious corridors of the world’s museums and galleries. But the pragmatics of running a business, more than any strong egalitarian sentiments, seems to be bringing galleries and museums around. An artist with a built-in fan base, even if the vast majority of their Instagram followers could not afford an original painting, is still capable of generating revenue in other forms and bringing visibility to the artist where people with deeper pockets might sit up and take notice.
The artist might intuitively see the benefits of a large social media presence while still feeling the double-bind. Khari spoke to me about his hesitation when it came to producing work for an album cover. To become known as “the guy who does album covers” might lessen the prestige of his personal brand, risk generating a negative association between his art and “low” arts, and thereby raise the question of whether or not his paintings stand on their own. When Black Thought comes calling, however, one must pay attention. The cultural clout of such a figure cannot be ignored, especially given the crossover success of The Roots in American culture. After all, they became the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s iteration of the Tonight Show even while their music maintains the politics of Black struggle.
It is this mainstreaming of Black politics and the ability to speak universally from a particular situation and political position that is bound up in the dream of artists in the United States. Everyone creates from their own position, their own background. Turner admits that often the nose and lips appearing in his work bear more than a passing resemblance to his own features precisely because these are the ones he lives with, that he sees in the mirror every day. Blending these highly particular features with abstraction opens the door to universality. It allows audiences, including white audiences, a way into the paintings so that they might hear the message and be spoken to. People can understand struggle generally even if they might not be able to grasp, or be ready to grasp, the particularities of Black people’s struggle in the United States.
It is the willingness to listen, to really listen, that marks the art with a certain degree of difficulty. Perhaps especially so when the audience already perceives themselves as being liberally open minded, on the same team, or even themselves already part of the in-crowd.
You can see this frustration in the more harried lines of Turner’s backgrounds and in the words of Tayler Renee Aldridge when she recounts coming upon images of visitors and patrons at the David Castillo Gallery in Miami Beach milling around Stanford Biggers’ installation Laocoön, socializing, sipping wine, snapping photos. The sight of a slowly and laborious inflating and deflating Black body, struggling to breathe, dressed as Fat Albert, laying face-down on the floor in the midst of laughing, wine-swilling, white gallery goers is a slap in the face – an image of an atmosphere totally devoid of sanctity, totally lacking awareness of the gravity of what the art work represents.
Aldridge’s ire seems to stem more from the audience’s reaction to Biggers’ work than to the work itself. She acknowledges that artists rightfully respond to police brutality, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia in their creative practices, while forcefully questioning the motives behind these responses given the market incentives that currently favor art’s relationship with social movements. It is a difficult needle to thread for anyone.
This brings me back to Turner’s insistence that he will not depict or trade in Black trauma. Toni Morrison said that Black male writers “justifiably write books about their oppression… Confronting the oppressor who is white male or white woman. It’s race. And the person who defines you under those circumstances is a white mind – tells you whether you’re worthy or what have you. And as long as that’s your preoccupation, you’re defending yourself against that. Reacting to it. Reacting to the definition – saying it’s not true.” Perhaps the same could be said of many Black male visual artists. But the problem, Morrison points out, is that this reactive approach never escapes the white gaze that defines “Black” and Blackness as a pejorative. Morrison’s own work sought to remove the white male gaze, and once that is done, as she says, “the whole world opens up.”
It is clear that Turner is still struggling with this white gaze, just as Aldridge reacted to the image of the gaze itself taking in an artwork depicting a cartoonish Black body gasping for air. This exemplifies the problem of double consciousness as W. E. B. Du Bois formulated it in 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk – to have to be seen and see yourself through the eyes of white supremacy and measuring yourself according to that judgment in which you will always come up short because you are Black. At the same time, you must recognize, have a sense, of your own self-worth, at least enough to assert that “Black lives matter,” and you combat the screen of white supremacy with that intuition of your own significance. It would be no coincidence, then, that Turner’s work follows two divergent lines – the black and white series on paper and the colorful, more exuberant works on canvas.
In the canvas works, the veil of the white gaze lifts up and the figures appear as tidal forces, whorls of water against vibrant backgrounds. Here, Turner approaches the monumental. TK Smith has written on monumentalizing Black bodies. As with philosophies of négritude, Smith argues that monuments to Black people are, in part, about reclaiming the narratives and histories of Black people, centering their experience and voice. While Turner is not (yet) creating large monumental works in public space, his painting of Vel Philips, the only painting in the series to bear the name of its subject, is certainly an effort to memorialize the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first African American and the first woman elected Alderwoman to the Milwaukee Common Council and to serve as a jurist in Wisconsin.
Perhaps the double consciousness is not escaped, nor can it be escaped so long as we continue to grapple with the racial legacy of the United States. But as he ventures between the figurative and the abstract, Turner performs a dialectic between the struggle against white supremacy, that narrative framing Blackness as less-than, and a vision of Black people emerging from their own experience in celebration of triumphs, hopes, and fears. It is an art that, in this dialectic, expresses the philosophy of négritude in an exemplary way – through the creation of a fresh vision about what it means to be, not just Black, but all too human in this historical moment.
As Frantz Fanon proclaims in Black Skin, White Masks, “I am not a prisoner of History. I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction. I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life. In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself.” WM
Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.
Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.view all articles from this author