Disconnecting, Reconnecting… Disconnected

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ART Lawrence 1Lawrence Graham-Brown at Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark.

Toward the back of the oblong white painted room, a four-inch high platform, measuring approximately five feet square stood empty, stark, bare, and seemingly out of place among the pieces of art work on the walls and on pedestals in the center. A few minutes after the appointed hour, a costumed man emerged from a side door. With exaggerated strides he circled the white platform, sprinkling liquid from a bottle, reenacting an ancient African ritual of blessing, libations and honoring the ancestors.

As if on cue, preceded by another in military fatigues holding aloft the Stars and Stripes and the flag of Africanism, the red, black and green, a man emerged from the side room wrapped mummy like in a white sheet. Wearing a headdress of white feathers, reminiscent of Marcus Garvey, he climbed on to the platform. Unwrapped by one of his assistants, the openly gay Jamaican-born artist Lawrence Graham-Brown, was revealed, except for a flimsy covering over his genitalia, nude – a potent symbol of stripping away all pretense and camouflage for the opening performance of his exhibition “Disconnecting, Reconnecting… Disconnected.”

ARTLawrence 2“For these recent series of performances, a person has to begin from a place of honesty and clothes just seem to get in the way. One has to get a fresh start to arrive at the meat of any matter, especially the legacy of degradation to those who are gay, Black and poor; those who face other complex issues while trying to remain standing tall and which begins the healing, brings closure and understanding for people who like those of the same sex,” Graham-Brown said.

Graham-Brown’s first solo exhibition began with the opening reception at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Newark, on Friday, Mar 4 and continues until April 23. While his live performance was part of the exhibition that was filmed, put on a loop and shown, a panel discussion “Belonging in My Own Skin: Understanding Depression in Black Gay Men” slated for Friday, Mar 25, continues his vision of examining the underlying causes of the oppression of Black gay men. It is free and open to the public.

Blood Bath Instead of the Bilboes (The Pleasure of Social Humiliation), 2011

Blood Bath Instead of the Bilboes (The Pleasure of Social Humiliation), 2011

As an artist, Graham-Brown has morphed from a static artist into a multi-media performance artist whose sculpture, mostly of found objects and paintings, among other media, attempt to capture the struggles, suffering and oppression of the peoples of the African Diaspora, wherever they are located.

“I started painting and tried to understand my place in the world as a Black gay man in the United States. I used found objects, rather than the usual art media, to demonstrate other uses for it,” he said.

The exhibition, said Victor Davson, founder and executive director of the gallery, can spark discussion about what it means to be Black, Pan African, and of the African Diaspora. Graham-Brown addresses a sensitive issue, seeing the health of Black gay men as edgy and is something for which a platform has to be created for the entire African Diaspora.

“This is not a show that could have been done in Jamaica or even Guyana. I’m very proud to be part of getting the dialog going. As someone from the Caribbean there is a lot of trauma and shame connected to people of color in this country. This is a very courageous body of work and it is something we need to have a conversation about,” Davson said.

The curator for this exhibition, Dean Daderko said that Graham-Brown uses his work to challenge the racist and homophobic attitudes held in a broad variety of cultures.

“His work’s ritual and cathartic power draws public attention to the existence of popularly-held prejudices, and acts as a palliative gesture to dispel the trauma and shame to which people of color and queer people are routinely subjected,” Daderko said.

Daderko said that Graham-Brown had composed a new body of work consisting of televisions and antennae, and it was his job to choose from Graham-Brown’s repertoire works that best demonstrate the violence, humiliation and degradation contained in slavery.

As a Jamaican, the artist draws on stark images from his country of birth to show the effects of colonialism and religious influenced homophobia. As a naturalized American, he continues to show how Black people are consistently oppressed and hindered by the lustful intentions of those Whites who exert power and domination. His work has been presented by the Queens Museum of Art, El Museo del Barrio and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance in New York; Real Artways in Hartford, CT; the 2008 Shanghai Biennial in China; in Duren, Germany; and at the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston, where he has participated in numerous exhibitions. His most recent exhibition was held in Jan 2011 in Trampoline, Brazil.

Graham-Brown recalls that when he worked in New York City, on his commute to and from home he read books on civil rights and history. He discovered that race was a central theme in America, along with the legacy of slavery, servitude, gender and sexuality. He realized that his Caribbean heritage and the historical realities in America were a powerful combination, giving rise to “Ras-Pan-Afro-Homo-Sapien”, his ultimate protest title.

“As a queer person, I felt I had an intense connection to his work, seeing the representation of another queer person speaking about his experience. And while I’m not familiar with the Caribbean context, I feel I can understand it through his work as a queer Jamaican. I think what he’s doing is incredibly brave, which is not popular, especially his openness about his homosexuality as a Jamaican,” Daderko said.

The Aljira exhibition features a number of new works which deal with inequities from being Black and gay, and intends to give hope to Black gay men as an affected community. Newark is the most appropriate place, Graham-Brown said, and living in New Jersey allows him to start the discussion. This exhibition demonstrates his work in painting, use of enamel, latex, his own blood, and acrylic in non-abstract forms.

The inspiration for his work comes from his understanding of Ras and Pan and it is who he is now, “My work is not hidden. My style is immediate, it comes at the viewer. It’s new media art and it’s based on my idea of the construct of the RasPanAfroHomoSapien. It contains respect for the living, the dead and the unborn,” he said.

Graham-Brown’s preparation for this his first solo exhibition in the U.S. began twenty years earlier as a self taught 21-year-old young man in his native country, painting and sculpting, and honing his skills using brassieres, panty hoses, fabric, textiles and  found objects to tell a story, carry a message.

“When I started painting, it was experimental art with female undergarments, using lots of mannequins. Then my themes were mostly based on gender and sexuality, but when I came to the U.S. I incorporated race. In Jamaica, expressions of race in my art were mostly subtle addressing classicism in the society,” he said.

His first ever solo show, focusing on homosexuality, was held at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus in Kingston, Jamaica, and although his work was on display for six weeks, its controversial nature elicited strong responses, including vandalism, attempts at destruction by students, and death threats, to the point that the police were called and items were confiscated.  Since no one liked his art and it wasn’t exactly commercial, he was nonetheless allowed to show at the Jamaican National Gallery and Tina Spiro, the owner of Chelsea Gallery in Kingston took a chance to show his work.

Prior to his forays into art, Graham-Brown had converted his home into a bed and breakfast, running one of the only same-sex accommodations in Jamaica. He advertised his B&B in Europe and in 1993, received an award from the Jamaican Tourist Board as the Best New B&B. Part of his success as an hotelier hinged on the relationships he had developed with several big chain hotels that sent to his establishment their gay guests who wanted an authentic Jamaican experience. Following the increase in homophobia, he gave up the B&B, migrated to Germany and then made his way to the U.S. Living in New Jersey, Graham-Brown trained as a chef at the Culinary Academy in Monmouth County and worked in hospitals, nursing homes and in school districts around the state.

“Lots of people are going to see the red, black and green and when they start focusing in on the material, they will see he’s addressing a sensitive issue,” said Davson.

 

 

 

ART Lawrence 1Lawrence Graham-Brown at Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark.

Toward the back of the oblong white painted room, a four-inch high platform, measuring approximately five feet square stood empty, stark, bare, and seemingly out of place among the pieces of art work on the walls and on pedestals in the center. A few minutes after the appointed hour, a costumed man emerged from a side door. With exaggerated strides he circled the white platform, sprinkling liquid from a bottle, reenacting an ancient African ritual of blessing, libations and honoring the ancestors.