You have only been an actively exhibiting artist for three years. How did this new career come about for you?
I was previously working in an industry that was centered around capitalism and vanity. It sucked my soul dry and left me feeling drained and without purpose. My path as an artist/activist remained dormant for so long that I nearly hit rock bottom after decades of pushing forward with work I had no passion for. That's when I became awake to the fact that I had to make a radical change in my life. I began showing some of my pieces privately to friends and then developed the courage to apply to open calls. I was so compelled and motivated once I started that there was no turning back. Art making, as it does for so many, saved my life.
Your first solo exhibition two years ago met with a hailstorm of criticism and controversy. How is your new body of work different or similar to the work you made before?
There's much more nuance in my work now. It still has a very hard edge, which is true to my nature and tends to stir controversy, but I've come to appreciate the importance of symbolism more in my practice. Since the subject matter is so heavy I think leaving interpretation more up to the viewer rather than spelling it out completely serves the work and the audience more. My new work requires more critical thinking and self reflection from the audience, too. Regardless of the circumstances, because my work has received so much attention from very early on in my practice, I've had to make mistakes very publicly. Those moments of feeling deeply uncomfortably have really forced me to examine my fragility and privilege and that's made this body of work more compelling and powerful.
Your background includes activism and you characterize your work as protest art—how do you see it operating in this manner?
Activist practices can be shocking and much of my work engages in that tradition. My work is intended to disrupt widely held beliefs that are toxic and in my case I hope to do that by challenging destructive racist beliefs.
How important is it to you to give back to the communities that you either depict or engage? In what manner do you do so?
I'm not interested in participating in the notion of a white savior, but in understanding the sensitivity of my position as a white artist, a percentage of the art sales from the majority of my work is donated to help a cause relevant to either where I'm showing or the subject matter of my art work.
Now, I'm also careful to collaborate with artists and critics of color to really make sure that my concepts are sound and that I have engaged a perspective of color I could never have.
You have said that your work seeks to dismantle white supremacy and the institutions that uphold white male dominance. Why, then, do you almost exclusively visualize black bodies in your work?
White bodies are represented all day and everyday. They are the standard we use to set rules, they are how we make major decisions, and they are the erroneous canon that this country and most of the world sets as the precedent for worthiness of human life. The representation of whiteness I want to center is in the atrocities we commit. With my new work, particularly "Gazing," the subject has full agency. He is empowered to make his own projections and judgments on his audience. He is setting the standard.
Because you depict what is perceived to be the African American rather than simply the American experience, critics have accused you of commodification, appropriation, and re-victimization. How do you respond to these criticisms?
I learned from the backlash towards my piece "Angelitos Negros" that recreating a subject that is a victim does indeed perpetuate the cycle of enslavement. Centering through my whiteness a black figure that has no agency is simply detrimental to my intended goal--I 100% acknowledge that. In growing and evolving my own perspective, I know now to engage black bodies in a space of empowerment and agency.
In your recent work, you collaborate with black intellectuals in two performance-based pieces. How did those collaborations come about?
For "Gazing," I collaborated with a dear friend from New Orleans. He's a talented young curator, artist, and writer and we discussed the prospect of working together sometime ago. When I began to develop the concept for Gazing, as a refashioning of The Thinker, I immediately thought of this person because he embodied the empowered intellect, the poet, that I wanted represented in the piece. I began talking to him about the pieces idea casually and his interest in how liberation and individuality intersect made it clear that he was ideal for the role.
For the second performance piece, "Converge," I am collaborating with the artists of the self-published book, Mixed Company, a collection of literary fiction and visual art by women of color. Four of the writers from the collective will individually reinterpret a conversation between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte, just months before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. They will sit inside of the large installation, an indigo car outside of the gallery, and share their own interpretation of this conversation individually with only two or three exhibition visitors at a time. Sitting in the car with strangers will serve as an intimate venue for conversations that perhaps wouldn't normally occur in the context of a gallery where preconceived notions take over and limit expansive thinking. The hope is that the safety of the car will enable healing and transformative conversations around race and injustice, that frankly rarely happen between strangers organically.
Have you ever felt the need to censor yourself before exhibiting a particular work?
Absolutely. Since my first exhibition, I've devoted myself to interrogating what I'm creating, how it's going to be interpreted, and who it may hurt. Controversy is still a very important part of any paradigm shift and challenging a collective belief system always has an element of violence and resistance, but I think it's been crucial for me to understand the moral costs of my message and who's paying for it.
What do you believe the role of the artist is within society?
The artist as activist is something we've talked about for a long time. It's a very natural marriage. Artists are thought leaders, disrupters, messengers, storytellers, interpreters, and much more. And audiences, critics, and the general public have the immensely important task of holding us accountable for what we're doing and why. I think that dialogue and all of the disagreements that rise from it is how we achieve collective progress.