“I have never been nor will I ever be a slave to visual style”. – Colin Quashie
Written by Leigh Sabisch, gallery assosciate, The Southern
Censorship has been a fight that the artworld has been fighting since the dawn of time. There have been and always will be people who feel that the world would be better off if sheltered from certain truths and images. When you think of artwork being censored, you think of Mapplethorpe and Serrano’s tiff with the NEA and Pope Pius’s “Great Castration”; You think of people creating artwork that “threatens” another’s beliefs and way of life. What’s discomforting is that this is still happening in the modern age, but rather than people being up in arms about nudity, the subject matter in question is one of race, slavery, and American history.
Colin Quashie is an artist trying to do the theoretically reasonable thing; he’s trying to have a civil discussion about our country’s grim past through his artwork. He’s creating work that is full of wit, allegory, and tradition while challenging the way that the country as a whole views African American history. It’s a challenging task, but Quashie is handling it as gracefully as ever.
Was it a conscious decision to position the figures in an American Gothic composition? If so, why?
No. In fact it wasn’t until a viewer made the connection that I realized the similarity. American Gothic is such a staple of the art world that it is easy to subconsciously borrow from it without consciously knowing it. The only time I consciously used American Gothic was with a satirized piece titled Black-American Gothic. The farmer and his wife were replaced with boxed products featuring Oprah Winfrey as Aunt Jemima and Colin Powell as Uncle Ben.
How have you found the balance to paint such a heavy subject in such a delicate/elegant way?
That’s easy – deconstruct and pare down the issue into the basest of emotional elements. I’m quite adept at looking at complex issues from an objective perspective and then subjectively stacking the pieces into a composition that illustrates whatever story I am interested in telling from my perspective. In the past I made attempts to be purposely overwhelming – only to realize that audiences had the luxury of ignoring me. Over the years I have learned to camouflage difficult topics by manipulating accepted and familiar images and using them as cover to deliver the goods.
Work of yours was censored in an exhibit in 1995, resulting in a sort of distaste in the art world. What was the piece, and did this influence the progression of your work in any way?
The work that was censored was ‘The Black american Dream’ – 26 – 8″ x 8″ silkscreened ceramic tiles hung from a clothes line with text that challenged the subconscious desire of black America to misappropriate European and white American norms of success, beauty, status, etc. It was put up on a Wednesday night at the Dock Street Theater for an opening on Thursday evening. It didn’t make it and was removed that morning. I was incensed and frustrated since that was the third time my work had been censored. The result was a total break from art and Charleston. I quit doing art for nearly 4 years and in that time moved to Los Angeles and became a television comedy writer. That move would prove instrumental in the future development of my art. Collaborating with other creatives in a highly competitive environment with specific demographic needs forced me to hone my craft in ways that still resonates with me.
With work like Plantation Monopoly where he altered a board to feature real estate such as Magnolia Plantation and penalties such as a “Slave Property Tax,” as well as the Black-American Gothic painting, Quashie is a pro at altering highly recognizable and relatable objects into a jumping off point for important conversations that our country as a whole needs to be having. Help make these conversations more natural by having them and by sharing artwork like Quashie’s to as many eyes that will look at it. Artwork is, after all, a universal language.