From Chicago to Detroit, Yashua Klos Presents Black Resilience, Defiance, and Tenderness
Chicago continues to rank among the most segregated cities in the United States, with Black and brown populations living across the south and west sides that lack the investment and resources of the white-dominated northern neighborhoods. Caused by more than a century’s worth of inequitable governance, redlining, and various forms of discrimination, this enduring racial separation has irrevocably shaped the city and its residents, impacting those who came to the area during the Great Migration and those who call it home still today. It’s often said that the history of Chicago is also the history of segregation.
This infamous legacy is an essential component of Yashua Klos’s evolution as an artist. “I’m from the city of Chicago, and Chicago’s urban planning was designed for segregation, to separate Black and white,” he shares with Colossal. “That segregation is baked into the ‘redlining’ housing ownership policies and the geography of the city.”
Now based in the Bronx, Klos frequently reflects on his hometown and brings the gridded structure of its streets into his works. A 2021 solo show at UTA Artist Space exhibited portraits bisected by angular blocks textured like wood, brick, and cinder, allowing fragments of the uniform roadways to emerge through facial features. “In art history, the grid is a kind of tool for optical democracy. There’s no visual hierarchy in a grid—you can enter any space at any time. So, I’m interested in that grid’s proposal of democracy and how that’s failed Black folks, especially where I’m from and how Chicago is constructed,” he says.
The collaged portraits evoke the ways identities are an amalgam of both genetics and surrounding influences. They mimic three-dimensional forms that surface from the flat plane of the paper, and Klos portrays the subjects as breaking free from constraint or relying on the structure for support. “I’m considering Black folks who are forming a defiant sense of self in order to survive in an often unjust environment. This is why these head forms often appear built of construction materials and suggest that they are sculptures or even monuments,” the artist writes, referencing the art historical use of statues and portraits to convey value and respect.
While Klos spent his upbringing in Chicago, his father’s family has ties to Detroit, particularly the car industry and Ford plant where many relatives worked. Like his portraiture, the artist’s woodblock prints of singular, upturned hands allow this personal history to converge with broader themes of familial love and political resilience. The appendages grasp botanicals native to Michigan and blocks floating nearby as they deny “work in order to hold flowers,” he says. “Here, I’ve found (an) opportunity to explore themes of nurturing, tenderness, generosity, and self-care.”
To explore an archive of Klos’s works, visit his site and Instagram
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Embodying Vibrance and Joy, Gio Swaby’s Patterned Portraits Celebrate Blackness and Womanhood
In Bahamian artist Gio Swaby’s colorful sewn portraits, an invisible yet integral thread comes in the form of an invitation to celebrate Blackness and womanhood. Through the language of textiles and pattern, her practice centers on accessibility and facilitating connection with the viewer. “I think about people like me and how I didn’t get into art or museums or anything until I was 19,” she tells Colossal, sharing that the historical exclusion of Blackness in art motivates her to make pieces that reflect individuality and joy in a mirror-like way.
The Toronto-based artist began working with sewing and textiles around ten years ago, and her use of the medium acknowledges the intersection of traditional craft and fine art, viewed through the lens of personal relationships. “My mother was a seamstress,” she says. “I grew up in that world, but I didn’t come back to it as an art medium until around 2013. I associated it with a special love between us, and I wanted to share that with the viewer, too.”
Sharing in connection and conversation is central to Swaby’s process, which involves sitting down with her subjects prior to beginning each piece. Most of the portraits represent women in her immediate circle of family and friends. “I already have a sense of who they are, but I learn more about them, and they learn more about me,” she says. The conversations lead to the selection of fabrics, which the artist chooses based on the individuals’ stories and personalities, with an emphasis on exuberant hues and bold designs. In self-portraits, she considers family histories and memories. She says, “I picked out a hummingbird print for my dad because I heard a story that when he was a kid, he was the only one in the neighborhood who could run fast enough to catch a hummingbird.”
In her larger portraits, Swaby incorporates sewing directly onto canvas as a drawing tool, outlining the contours of faces, hands, and hair. Loose threads dangle from the surfaces, suggesting the reverse—typically unseen—side of embroidery and the individuals’ sense of self being perpetually in progress. The titles of her concurrent, ongoing series imply dualities and connections. In New Growth, vibrant silhouettes celebrate Black hair while also alluding to a person who is thriving; Love Letter references a sentiment passed from one person to another—or perhaps even to oneself; and Another Side To Me recognizes the innumerable, intersecting facets of every identity.
Recently exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, Swaby’s solo exhibition Fresh Up travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and will open on April 8. Find more of her work at Claire Oliver Gallery, on her website, and follow updates on Instagram.
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Minimal Paintings by Artist Liz Flores Explore What It Means to Belong
A new series by Chicago-based artist Liz Flores explores familial roots and community through minimal portraits in a palette of deep, warm colors and neutral tones complemented by blues. In Ni De Aquí, Ni De Allá, which translates to “from neither here nor there,” Flores uses the anonymity and ambiguity of her figures to explore the connections between generations and the human desire to position oneself within an ancestral context. “This work is a direct reaction to the question ‘What are you?’” the artist says. “In the U.S., you don’t always feel like you are American enough. But then at the same time, you may not always feel Latina enough. You live in the in-between.”
Born to a Cuban mother and a Mexican father, Flores describes deepening her understanding of this liminal space during a recent collaboration with The Jaunt, a travel project that sends artists to various locations around the world. She traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she joined her aunt and other family members for the first time without her parents. She explains:
I spent the next few days at their home talking with her about the differences in living in the States vs. Mexico, how the family in the States has changed, and the difficulty in keeping traditions alive. During this conversation, she mentioned how it can feel like you are “ni de aquí, ni de allá” and that became the title and theme of my show. It was a moment that felt like an evolution for me, not just as an artist gaining inspiration but as an adult, making connections with my family members not through my parents but on my own.
That moment followed a trip to Cuba a week earlier to visit her mother’s family when she talked with her cousins about the same feelings of belonging.
These moments culminate in Flores’ solo show, which is on view through the end of the year at Vertical Gallery in Chicago. Fourteen acrylic paintings center on the artist’s signature color-blocked figures, whose bodies bend and join each other in abstract compositions. Elongated limbs and hand gestures imply movement through clean, graceful lines, and puzzle pieces on the threshold of fitting into place reference broader themes of identity and kinship. Works like “Fresca y Atrevida,” for example, are more personal and reflect Flores’ affinities with Cuban culture by finding a blue zunzuncito, the world’s smallest bird that’s native to the island nation, as it prepares to land on the tip of the woman’s finger.
A few of the prints the artist created with The Jaunt are available on the project’s site, and you can find more of her work on both canvases and walls on Instagram.
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Ride EJ Hill’s Bubblegum Pink Roller Coaster Through a Mass MoCA Gallery
Throughout the Jim Crow era, Black people were often barred entry to recreation spaces like public swimming pools and amusement parks. As these sites of leisure and joy were officially desegregated following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, those who continued to champion separation imposed new restrictions to control access to such areas. This included charging high fees to even enter the parks rather than smaller prices per ride, a practice that’s still widely in use today and has proliferated to other cultural arenas like museums.
Artist EJ Hill considers the racialized legacy of such entertainment through Brake Run Helix, the Los Angeles-based artist’s largest solo show to date and first at an institution. On view through January 2024 at the Massachusettes Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition revolves around the roller coaster as a way to excavate the history of identity, recreation, and pleasure. Through sculptures, installations, paintings, and smaller works, Hill considers the rides “public monuments to the possibility of attaining joy,” a feeling that is necessary for creating an equitable society.
The center of Brake Run Helix—this title references the mechanisms that slow or stop the cars and the 360-degree turn within the track—is a 260-foot bubblegum pink roller coaster. “Brava!” allows for a single rider, who emerges on a bright blue cart through a velvet curtain before plummeting a few feet and riding the undulating architecture through the Building 5 gallery.
Hill sees these rides as a sort of solo performance by museum visitors, who are propelled by gravity around the course before halting on a wooden stage in front of viewers. “I’m no longer interested in being the one to perform for a ravenous audience who wants to either celebrate me or consume me,” the artist told The New York Times in reference to earlier projects that involved him standing or lying atop an artwork for long periods. “I’m making this elaborate stage for other people to perform while I collect myself and recharge.”
Hill’s manner of inhabiting the world as a Black, queer person is also reflected in the pastel pink that runs throughout the exhibition, considering the pigment is traditionally associated with the feminine. “I feel like I understand bodily threat in a very real way. Every day when I leave my place, the threat to my bodily existence is palpable,” he said in that same interview, sharing that the interactive installation is a way “to bring people as much as I can to understanding what that feels like, but in a space of joy, of being a human in the world.”
For more of Hill’s multi-disciplinary works, visit his site and Instagram.
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A Major Exhibition and Monograph, Amy Sherald’s ‘The World We Make’ Shapes a Hopeful Future Through Monumental Portraiture
In her first major exhibition outside of the U.S., artist Amy Sherald (previously) presents a body of work that’s distinctly American. The World We Make, which is now on view, brings Sherald’s signature grisaille portraiture to Hauser & Wirth London. Monumental in scale and primarily rendered on flat, monochromatic backdrops, the oil paintings reference a sense of determined optimism to shape reality. “The works reflect a desire to record life as I see it and as I feel it. My eyes search for people who are and who have the kind of light that provides the present and the future with hope,” the artist says.
Included in the exhibition is a strikingly subversive interpretation of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s black-and-white photo “V-J Day in Times Square,” which shows a Navy sailor dipping and kissing a woman following Japan’s surrender in WWII. In Sherald’s “For love, and for country,” two men dressed in mariner garb embrace in a similar pose, subverting the iconic image of U.S. victory, while illuminating the inequities that Black, gay men in the military face still today.
Questions of masculinity and American identity pervade the show, particularly in works like “A God Blessed Land (Empire of Dirt),” which positions an overall-clad farmer atop a John Deere tractor. This agricultural equipment echoes the themes of freedom and movement in Sherald’s “Deliverance” diptych that features two figures balancing on their dirt bikes as they perilously soar mid-air. “The tractor and motorbike paintings explore different expressions of self-sovereignty in our communities and how these expressions might carry into the future. Vehicles become a literal metaphor here for forward momentum, for movement, and potential movement,” Sherald says.
Hauser & Wirth Publishers has released the artist’s first comprehensive monograph to coincide with The World We Make, which you can see through December 23. Find more from Sherald on Instagram.
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Photographer Zanele Muholi Finds Empowerment Through Bold Black-and-White Portraiture
The striking portraits of South African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi (previously) are easily recognizable. Shot in stark black-and-white, the images utilize heavy contrast and center on single subjects dressed in elaborate garments. These wearables are sculptural in construction and made from commonplace objects: clothespins are strung together as a necklace, dried grasses splay outward like the brim of a hat, and rolls of toilet paper cascade over a figure’s shoulders.
Muholi often works in self-portraiture and is known for photographing Black queer subjects as a way to explore the radical nature of identity and as a means of celebration and respect. “The work that I produce is meant to be for every person,” they say in an interview. “It could be a teacher. It could be a mother whose child is queer and wants to have a reference point to show their kids and say that you are not alone. And it could be for LGBTI people themselves to understand their worthiness.” Muholi views all of their works as collaborations with the sitters, who often gaze at the camera with direct, empowered expressions.
Many of the photos shown here are part of the group exhibition Dig Where You Stand, which is on view through October 9 at Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, Ghana. A project of African Artists’ Foundation, the group show engages with questions of decolonization and restitution and will travel to Lagos, Lusanga, and Lisbon in the coming months. Until then, find more from Muholi on Instagram.
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