Four Art Exhibits Highlight Black Portraiture

By far, the best place to find go-gos in DC is the Metro PCS outlet at the corner of Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW. The cell phone store has been producing the city’s signature sound since 1995, also serving as a market for new arrivals.

The penumbra of funk extended over Seventh Street – visually, not just sonically. Previously, photographers and promoters used the parking lot in front of the old CVS across the Seventh to set up giant colorful paintings as backdrops for photos. For the club photographers who photographed them, these paintings transformed the block into a live portrait studio.

Artist Larry Cook was one of them: he worked as a club photographer from 2007 to 2013, setting up public photo booths like the ones that held the scene in the CVS parking lot. Since then he has scoured the DMV to collect these vibrant backdrops, which he uses for his studio work.

For a new project, Cook has teamed up with Dartmouth ethnomusicologist Allie Martin, whose work on sound culture is central to the Do not cut DC movement. Their resulting collaboration – on display in “Tradewinds” at Stable Arts, an artists’ studio and exhibition space in Eckington – is a portrait of the city, albeit one that viewers might not recognize at first glance as a portrait.

A celebration for Don’t Mute DC and the music that inspired it

Along with exhibitions at Transformer, the Washington Project for the Arts and the National Portrait Gallery, this is one of many fall exhibitions in which black artists engage in the act of portraiture. These artists present new and thought-provoking ways of capturing themselves or others, using text, performance and installation – and rarely meeting the old expectations of the genre.

“Tradewinds” captures the light and sounds at the periphery of the go-go experience in DC’s “The City Is the Club Is the City” (2022), Martin’s installation, includes a boombox and CDs scattered by tastes of chuck brown and rare essence. The glass tiles on the floor look like a mirrored dance floor. In addition to these reflective, prismatic surfaces, his piece also includes soundscapes: field recordings taken at the corner of Seventh and Florida that capture the noise of traffic and conversation with go-go drums. She holds a mirror up to the city.

Cook uses the backdrops of the club he cherishes in a number of ways. Several portraits show people posing in front of these paintings of burning cars or urban skylines. But Cook erased the individuals in the photos, dazzling the surface of his photos with rhinestones until the figures disappeared. The details of the seated subject for “And Another One” (2022) threaten to emerge from under Cook’s sparkling cocoon – the stripe on his sweater, the logo on his cap, the branding of his sneakers – without ever fully materializing.

In “Untitled” (2022), Cook pairs checkered tiles on the floor (a recurring motif) with a vinyl wall print of a painted beach backdrop. On this club scene, he pasted snapshots from his personal archives: images on which he applied even more rhinestones, masking the faces of his portraits. The artist dives deep into ideas about surface and re-photographs it, borrowing from the traditions of the city for his exploration of his medium.

“Commemorative Strands,” a solo exhibition by Artise Fletcher at Transformer, examines black culture by combining photography and sculpture. Fletcher works with hair – specifically the Kanekalon synthetic fiber used for hair extensions and weaves – and all the expectations that come with it. She weaves this material into objects, including “Status Symbol” (2022), a tiered suspended mobile, and a series of tapestries with attached photographs.

Fletcher’s works address social conventions associated with African American women’s hair traditions: a model suffering from baldness associated with alopecia appears in her photos. Fletcher brings something else to these portraits. Her synthetic hair tapestries borrow from the textile traditions of women weavers in Peru, elevating art forms beyond cultural boundaries bound by the special status they share in craftsmanship and heritage.

“Commemorative Strands” finds Fletcher looking outward, for a pan-American, pan-African perspective; his works refer to history and tradition. “Tradewinds” portrays a community of black Washingtonians. Another exhibition of black portraits, “Being/Becoming” from the Washington Project for the Arts, takes a third approach, tapping deep into the well of self for radical forms of expression.

Curated by performance artist Yacine Tilala Fall, “Being/Becoming” brings together works by five black women and non-binary artists. The presentation is intimate, warm and dark, like a black box theater or a library study nook, giving the videos in particular a chance to shine.

“Mindset – Pura Vida” (2022) by Renee Cox is the most direct portrait, and perhaps the most piercing. This short loop of video resembles a hologram: a static image with a false sense of depth that seems to change direction with the viewer. The artist’s nude self-portrait occupies an eerie spatial realm, made all the more mystical because it is not a mere optical illusion but a deliberate bending production of light. Marcelline Mandeng Nken’s “Floodgate” (2022) is another trippy video work, exploding with cascading sequences of found footage, anime clips, neon animation and original electronic dance music. These sequences overwhelm the viewer, transforming into a mesmerizing Afrofuturistic portrait.

The works of Muse Dodd and Dominique Duroseau are, on the contrary, retained and sought after. Dodd’s video piece juxtaposes kaleidoscopic self-portraits with sequences of flowing water, a literal depiction of gender fluidity. Over it, the artist intones a sort of spoken poem, describing the feeling of being “genderless and gendered”. Duroseau’s work also includes text: half-poetry, half-manifesto, written in black letters on black paper covered in black ink and paint. Heavy, oversized, rough-edged pages almost look like ecclesiastical passages, crossing the line from writing to carving.

For “Being/Becoming,” Holly Bass contributes “Heavy” (2022), a video that captures the artist’s weightlifting routine. A barbell and weight plates complete the setup. This piece is a personal biographical sketch that takes on its full meaning in the context of her performances, in which she often plays a sort of archetypal narrator. For Bass, lifting 170 pounds is not a boast but a professional obligation: his demanding endurance performances require strict body training.

A portrait contest that expands the definition of a likeness

“Heavy” could be an accompaniment to “American Woman” (2021), a stressful and sardonic video that is presented at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of the museum’s triennial portrait competition. For this piece — which Bass performed live at the museum in September — she dances for seven straight hours to lyrics and songs by well-known black women writers, artists, poets and other black women. Bass charges in, pushing his body from Lucille Clifton’s verses (“Come celebrate with me that every day something tried to kill me and failed”) to a Donna Summer disco crossover hit (“She Works Hard for money”).

“American Woman” gives a fourth perspective on black portraiture, alongside community, tradition, and experimental form: a legacy of strength.

Artise Fletcher: Commemorative Strands

Transformer. 1404 P St. NW. 202-483-1102. Until October 22.

Stable Arts, 336 Randolph Pl. NE. 202-953-9559. Until November 4.

Being/Becoming: the act of portraiture

Washington Project for the Arts. 2124 Eighth Street NW. 202-234-7103. Until November 12.

Outwin 2022: the American portrait today

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and G Streets NW. Until February 26.

Admission to all shows is free.

James C. Tibbs