Seeing the Future

Excerpt from Artist Talk with Tavares Strachan | Moderated by Alysia Nicole Harris

Poet and linguist Alysia Nicole Harris speaks with artist Tavares Strachan about redressing Black histories to create new possibilities. 

Presented on November 17, 2021 at the Nasher Sculpture Center. 

Alysia Nicole Harris: So, I don’t know if you know this, but we have an overlapping experience: We both went to Yale and we both have done some weird experiments in Russia at various times in our lives, and I’m interested in talking to you about this impulse to explore these really extreme environments and climates. I’m curious about where the impulse to dislocate comes from. 

Tavares Strachan: I really love your question; I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia recently. Several years ago, I had a studio visit that ended studio visits for me for a while just because I was very distraught. We artists are, as you know, a very sensitive bunch and this critic at the time had said, “Well your work is becoming very nostalgic,” and I thought OK, what does that mean? And fundamentally—as a linguist, I’m sure you’re aware of this—but we don’t always know what we mean when we say words. But the word nostalgia comes from the collision of two Greek words. It was more-or-less invented by a physician, I think around 1688 during a war, and the soldiers at war at the time were experiencing a grave longing for the homeland. That’s fascinating for me because when you’re from the diaspora like me, and you come from the Bahamas—imagine being in one place and many generations later waking up in another place, and then having someone tell you that your feelings of nostalgia don’t really make sense and you shouldn’t reflect on your history. So, I think the idea of not being able to process one’s own story in a public way, or even in a private way, or in a way that is validated by culture, presents dissonance that I think is problematic, but as an artist, very fascinating.

Harris: I’m interested in this notion of nostalgia or longing or maybe even exile—feeling not quite at home in a variety of different places or trying to explore a home that is retrievable. I’m interested in how that intersects with the neon sculpture that you have here with the phrase “You belong here.” That phrase seems so static but there’s a lot of fluidity, a lot of change, a lot of openness present, especially in the use of the “You” and “here.” So, I’m curious about how that openness constructs itself in this piece, but also in terms of what you’re talking about in trying to find that space of home. 

tavares strachan you belong here neon sculpture

Strachan: The great John Baldessari has a quote which is “Artworks are really good at pointing at things that are not in the room.” And so, the question is: who are you? And where is ‘here’? And I think we all struggle with fitting in, and I think this work is about sameness. There’s so much work done around how we’re different, and so I think that the work for me is a kind of lyrical word play. I think that’s the case for a lot of work that has language in it, because you read it, you almost repeat it like a lyric from a song, and in that way, you become a part of it, and it becomes a part of you. It’s something that I enjoy, but I also think it has a dark undertone. You know, if you really feel that way, then why you gotta say it? 

Harris: Right, that’s something that’s so striking to me. I thought this phrase could be interpreted in so many different ways, depending upon the context in which we are in. It could be uttered in a space where it’s already affirming what people already know: ‘Of course, I belong here.’ It could be uttered in a way that is trying to invite people into a space who might not feel welcome. Then I also think of the ‘you’ who potentially is saying it to themselves—that ‘you belong here’—trying to convince yourself that you have the capacity to take up space. And what’s interesting is that ‘you’ and ‘here’ are both deictic elements, so they get their meaning, their reference, from context, but it’s also interesting because this piece is floating [on water], so it’s also changing in terms of the location even as you’re encountering it.

Strachan: I think one of the main ingredients of being an artist is this relationship one has to being disoriented, and disorientation is a fundamental part of creative practice. I think that so much of the world’s problems are resolved through allowing oneself to go through the process of being disoriented.

Harris: You’re working with light or illumination, and that seems to be a conceptual play, but I wonder if you could talk about the importance of this notion of visibility—what we can see and what we can’t see.

Strachan: I think there’s something that is profound about the Black experience at this moment, especially in the art space, when there is this perception that there’s so much coverage being given to artists of color. I think that when you’re from the island I grew up on—the population is 250,000 people—and when you move to America and say you want to be an artist, there’s this kind of vibe about you having to get in line. If you go to the museum, there’s no category for the place that I’m from at the museum. And so, when you are working in the visual arts it doesn’t necessarily feel like a welcoming space for you, and I think that it is significant for us to name that as a thing: who’s allowed to be an artist and who’s deciding? And I think we all are [deciding], in some way, and it’s important for us to think through that, because the next philosopher or great thinker or the great-great-grandson of Marcus Garvey is sitting on one of those islands, just waiting for a shot.

Harris: I think about the ways [your work] is actually creating space, using space as a material for future possibilities, but also for historical redress and the way past figures have this kind of anaphoric relationship, where you are availing them opportunities to speak back into a narrative that they were excluded from. And I think that that’s a way of creating space, not just in a gallery or museum, but actual space in the narrative for people to slip in and interweave themselves. … You’re talking about the narrative as material.

I love this piece, The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, because it’s a sculpture, it’s an object, but it’s also a body of knowledge. How did this piece come about and what is its ongoing process?

Strachan: I have this fundamental belief that we’re all talking to our younger selves, and so I think all the artists that I love—all the poets, the architects—they’re making work for their younger selves. In this case, I used to go to my grandma’s house and read the encyclopedia. I always thought: what’s up with this? How do they know? And not only how do they know all of it, but who’s deciding what is in it and what is not in it. I thought to myself then, ‘well, as soon as I get the chance, I’ll make my own.’

Harris: [Your encyclopedia has] 17,000 entries. How do you decide what goes into it?

Strachan: I think that it’s all the stories that I was interested in as a child that weren’t really told in any way that was enlightening or that reflected the folks that I was going to school with or seeing in my neighborhood, but that I thought needed a place to be. And so, I wanted to try to represent invisibility, and what invisibility looks like. And I think that in this moment of chaos that we’re in as civilization, we’re occupying that space where we’re trying to negotiate the future by talking to the past. …

Harris: But it’s a liminal space. It’s a space of uncertainty and questioning what you know and don’t know and then [questioning] the criteria for coming to those conclusions, which is something that strikes me about this work—to really analyze, as an object, these bodies of knowledge that we have created. I think science is one of the ways that we’re advancing this project of human knowledge, and I think art is another way that you advance that work of human knowledge, but you’re looking at science with a kind of skepticism and exploiting the nooks and crannies. I guess I’m saying science is a space of uncertainty. How do you navigate that? I’m thinking of this installation, EIGHTEEN NINETY. The amount of knowledge is overwhelming.

Strachan: The reason it’s called EIGHTEEN NINETY is because there was kind of enlightenment for adventures in 1890. This is right on the edge of abolition and so there’s all this pent-up, creative energy. And this is the year where there were the most patents submitted to the patent office in the history of the world, even up to today. In addition to that, the majority of the patents that were submitted were by Black folks, which is crazy. And [in 1890] you’re seeing re-creations of some of those inventions, mixed in with some of the text of the encyclopedias, as a kind of assemblage, collage painting, but that becomes a room as a backdrop, for again, a story about invisibility. But I think it’s profound because information can change reality. If you say to a kid, “Oh, by the way, you come from a long line of scientists,” in a community where someone might be telling that kid, “You can’t be a scientist,” that information fundamentally—again, this is my argument for why art is profoundly significant and important in this moment—that information changes all of us.

Harris: That point that you made about the majority of the patents being submitted from Black folks reminds me that for such a long time, Black folks could be objects of study, could be analyzed, experimented on, manipulated for purposes external to our own benefit, but we couldn’t be bodies of knowledge. Our literal bodies could not produce knowledge that could be useful to the wider world, and that mechanism of redress in your work is to question that and to actually put Black observers, Black artists, Black inventors, Black scientists into the position that they have always been able to hold as observers of the world, of people who are able to analyze and to communicate. To give that contribution meaning and weight is also really powerful in this moment, and to be able to say to that kid, “Yeah that’s you, that’s you right there.”

Strachan: In early college, I had eczema, and one of the things that the doctor prescribed was cortisone, and cortisone was discovered by a Black man. And I think knowing this is important. I think it’s this kind of cat and mouse game, not necessarily about invisibility but what’s visible and why it’s visible. Because usually [what is visible] is taking the space of something that is not there, so why do we know the things that we know? It makes me think about school curriculums, and that’s just how power is constructed, right?

Harris: I want to talk about power in this image, Every Knee Shall Bow. So, what’s the deal with the title of this piece? 

tavares strachan every knee shall bow

Strachan: One of the biggest inspirations for the encyclopedia project, and a lot of the work that I make, is the fact that when I was in school in the Bahamas as a kid, you never learned about anyone Black. I know more about Columbus and the conquistadors than I know about anyone from Nairobi or Ethiopia or the Sudan, but there was this kind of diamond in the rough which was music. Music was a space where all these hidden gems about history and these untold stories were. I would go to school and learn what they were teaching me, and then I would go home and the drug dealer across the street would be playing reggae. In that music, which was kind of shrouded in this kind of chaos of the neighborhood, was information about Haile Selassie or Marcus Garvey or Prince Emanuel or the Nile or civilization or inventions of mathematics or architecture or ... all this is embedded in the words to the music, which is my real education. 

This Ethiopian man, His Majesty Haile Selassie, met up with Queen Elizabeth and, because emperors outrank Queens, she had to bow to [him], and I think he’s the only person she’s ever taken the knee for. And so, I decided to make this work that was a kind of a meditation on this relationship, this collision between these two powerful entities. I mean, we can wax on and on about [how he was the] Ethiopian Mussolini, but the general premise here is that he’s a short, frail, but very powerful emperor. And then there are these meditations about religion in the Caribbean and Rasta and Rastafarianism, and who gets to decide what’s a religion and what’s not. Who decides what a god is? And this idea of being able to play with these bits of history, because I think that’s how the future happens—you ping-pong moments of the present with the past, and then you end up with the future. 

Tavares Strachan activates the intersections of art, science, and politics, offering unique points of view on the cultural aspects of scientific knowledge. He works in collaboration with organizations and institutions across disciplines, to promote a broader and more inclusive understanding of the work of both artists, scientists, and the systems and support networks that make their work possible. In conversation with poet Alysia Nicole Harris, Strachan explores language, race, and the cross-disciplinary aspects of his practice.

Photos from top: Tavares Strachan, We Belong Here, 2021. Neon, 532 x 176 in. (1351.3 x 447 cm). Installation at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Tavares Strachan. Photo: Jurate Veceraite. / Tavares Strachan, EIGHTEEN NINETY and The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, 2018/2020. Approx. 1354 panels; UV ink, vinyl, graphite, oil stick, Mylar, collage, acrylic, Sintra, Leather, gilding archival paper, maple, felt, acrylic, Panels: 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 2 in. (28.6 x 21 x 5.1 cm) (each). Overall: 72 3/4 x 267 7/8 x 231 5/8 in. (184.9 x 680.4 x 588.4 cm). Book: 15 3/8 x 13 3/8 x 5 in. (39.1 x 34 x 12.7 cm). Book with stand: 55 x 36 x 20 5/8 in. (139.7 x 91.4 x 52.4 cm). Installation of “In Plain Sight” at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Tavares Strachan. Photo: Lewis Ronald. / Tavares Strachan, Every Knee Shall Bow, 2020. Oil, enamel, and pigment on acrylic, 96 x 96 x 2 in. (243.8 x 243.8 x 5.1 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Tavares Strachan. Photo: Jurate Veceraite. 

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