Multiplicity Blackness in American Collage

The first large-scale exhibition of its kind, Multiplicity: Blackness in Contemporary American Collage features more than eighty works of art that reflect the breadth and complexity of Black life today. The use of different materials inherent in the collage process is a way of expressing the multiple facets that combine to create unique and layered personhoods. For the fifty-two artists featured in Multiplicity, this offers an opportunity to counter the false perception of Blackness as a monolith. As Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts states, “With collage, I can create a more expansive and inclusive view of the Black cultural experience.”

This intergenerational group of artists, ranging in age from thirty to eighty and working across the country, is building on a technique that has roots in European and American traditions. Collage has been used by canonical figures from Pablo Picasso and Hannah Höch to Robert Rauschenberg and, of paramount importance for this project, Romare Bearden, who is considered the father of African American collage. For some of the artists, including Roberts and Wangechi Mutu, collage is their signature art form, while for others such as Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, and Mickalene Thomas, it represents a branch or chapter in their wider practice. Assembled of paper, fabric, and other, often salvaged materials, the collage and collage-informed works in Multiplicity convey the endless possibilities of Black-constructed narratives despite the fragmentation of our times.

Although Multiplicity is wide reaching in scope, there are many more Black artists working in collage, an art form used by students and professionals alike. We hope the exhibition spurs future projects on the subject. We also hope it prompts viewers to consider what parts of their selves—heritage, sex, gender identity, physical ability, religion, class, race, and much more — unite to make them who they are.  

Fragmentation and Reconstruction

This section introduces the array of materials and techniques used by different artists in the collage process, from relatively straightforward cutting and pasting to more complicated layering and interweaving with other media. Like twentieth-century predecessors such as Romare Bearden, many of the artists featured here gather existing materials to form their compositions. Paper fragments are taken from magazines (often vintage Jet and Ebony issues), books, newspapers, and maps, either in their original state or as reproductions. Some artists use their own source material, including Yashua Klos, who makes woodblock prints, and YoYo Lander, who stains and washes watercolor paper to create poignant portraits. As seen in examples by Tschabalala Self and David Shrobe, fabrics ranging from denim to African textiles are also incorporated into collages. Other materials seen throughout the exhibition include wallpaper, glitter, feathers, rhinestones, string, and mirrors, which are adhered to the supporting surface with glue or thread. Many works, including Kerry James Marshall’s nearby, also include some form of pigment—oil, acrylic, graphite, ink, or watercolor.

Excavating History and Memory

Artists featured in this gallery combine disparate elements to evoke shared histories and memories ranging from the Middle Passage to the civil rights movement, to the vitality of HBCU campus life. Radcliffe Bailey brings together photo reproductions, rope, and other materials to honor Black narratives that have been overlooked or lost, including the legacies of enslaved African ancestors. Tomashi Jackson presents connections between past and present (or “colliding histories,” as the artist calls them) by transferring both historic photos and contemporary imagery onto canvases. An alum of Morehouse College, Derek Fordjour honors Black excellence and cultural contributions in a body of work devoted to members of HBCU marching bands. Personal histories often fit into a larger collective experience. Yashua Klos navigates memories of growing up as a biracial child on Chicago’s South Side; Lester Julian Merriweather pays homage to those lost to gun violence, including a close family member; and Vitus Shell seeks to move beyond stereotypes to better understand the humanity of people involved in gangs through depictions of his cousin Red.

Cultural Hybridity

For artists in this exhibition who were born outside of the United States or are first-generation Americans, collage reflects a cultural hybridity that forms as they and their families navigate life in a new country while staying closely connected to their homelands. They view countries in Africa or the Caribbean through a postcolonial lens, and their work often addresses global, social, and political injustices related to race, gender, and class. Jamaica-born Ebony G. Patterson, for example, lures viewers into her multimedia installations with lush and brightly colored vegetation reminiscent of the island’s many gardens, only to remind them of the violence that colonialism and slavery brought through sinister elements tucked between the plants, such as a headless figure or a snake. Some, including Nyugen E. Smith and Andrea Chung, look to African and Black Caribbean spiritual traditions for pathways to healing. Both of Haitian descent, Didier William and M. Florine Démosthène create works that typically feature a pair of figures, perhaps in reference to Marassa Jumeaux, the divine twins of Haitian Vodou, as well as the strong dual experiences that inform their identities.

Notions of Beauty and Power

Zoë Charlton, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Tschabalala Self, Mickalene Thomas, and other artists in this section deconstruct long-standing notions of beauty and power centered on whiteness that are widely promoted in fine art and popular culture. By replacing Édouard Manet’s and Henri Matisse’s reclining nude figures with confident Black women, they insert themselves and others like them into the art-historical canon. The presence on museum walls of women sporting an array of hairstyles, physiques, and fashions—often looking directly at the viewer—simultaneously subverts both the white gaze and the male gaze. Thoughtfully and poetically pieced together, these works feature unapologetic and vibrant figures that reflect the multidimensionality of Black womanhood. Devan Shimoyama, however, reminds us that beauty does not lie solely in the realm of girls and women. His glitter-and-rhinestone-encrusted portrait of a young man posing for a selfie asserts the value and desirability of the Black male body, which is often the target of profiling and violence. Deborah Roberts’s focus on children between the ages of eight and twelve underscores how vulnerable Black youth are to the negative messaging that surrounds them all too often.

Gender Fluidity and Queer Spaces

Notions of beauty are closely intertwined with gender constructs, and several featured artists express gender fluidity in their work, a reminder that we live in an increasingly nonbinary world. Devan Shimoyama challenges traditional representations of masculinity, especially in male-dominated spaces such as the barber shop. In Rashaad Newsome’s still life collage, the centers of the glittering floral jewelry, adornment traditionally worn by women, have been replaced with smiling, sometimes suggestive gender-ambiguous mouths. As queer people increasingly come under literal and legislative attack, safe spaces for communal and intimate interaction are becoming even more vital. Lovie Olivia highlights the importance of A’Lelia Walker’s gatherings at her Dark Tower townhome during the Harlem Renaissance, while Wardell Milan underscores the significance of gay nightclubs, including Orlando’s Pulse, where forty-nine patrons were murdered in a mass shooting in 2016. In contrast to these works dedicated to public places, Devin N. Morris’s collages typically depict quiet, everyday moments in warm domestic interiors. Mickalene Thomas places two intimately intertwined Black women into a pastoral landscape, making space for herself and her queer community in the history of art as well as the present day.

Toward Abstraction

Although most of the work in Multiplicity is representational, some artists use various types of paper or fabric to create deeply personal abstractions. McArthur Binion, for example, creates the ground for the chromatic grids of his DNA series with photocopied fragments of his old address book and Mississippi birth certificate. The abstract patterns of Rick Lowe’s collaged paintings were initially informed by time spent playing dominoes with residents of Houston’s Third Ward, a neighborhood he helped transform through Project Row Houses. Mark Bradford constructs many of his large-scale paintings with end papers like those he and his mother used when giving clients perms in her Los Angeles hair salon. Shinique Smith, Brittney Boyd Bullock, and Sanford Biggers believe found materials, especially textiles, retain their value and associations whiles also evoking new meanings when recycled in their work. Howardena Pindell has been making collages using tiny paper circles formed with a hole punch since the 1970s. The more recent examples in this exhibition represent an important throughline in her own enduring practice, which has received renewed critical attention in recent years.

Digital Stitches

Multiplicity concludes by expanding the definition of collage beyond analog practices to include digital stitches, an inevitable evolution in today’s digitally saturated environment. The internet offers seemingly endless source material, and software like Photoshop allows artists to patch together imagery of their choosing. Kahlil Robert Irving’s large-scale wallpaper installation is composed of hundreds of digital images combined in a way that evokes the continual feed of smartphones and laptops. Paul Anthony Smith similarly gathers digital images he makes himself, typically no more than eight per work, before lifting small parts of the resulting print’s surface into a distinct pattern. Lauren Halsey scans images from magazines and combines them with ones sourced from the internet to create a new Afrofuturistic world full of opportunity and resilience. Nashville artist Rod McGaha also sees hope for Black futures in his Regeneration series, in which he tucks photographs he shoots of local dancers into one of a shrub just beginning to bloom. Taking the notion of digital collage one step further is Arthur Jafa’s video montage Love is the Message, The Message is Death, a poignant and unvarnished portrait of Black life in America. With a stream of collaged clips set to the anthem “Ultralight Beam” by Ye (formerly Kanye West), Jafa presents the lows of poverty and police brutality as well as the highs of Black excellence and Black joy despite systemic injustices. Whether employing digital or analog techniques, the artists in this exhibition demonstrate how collage is an effective tool for expressing fresh connections, deeper meanings, and a rebuilt world.

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