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Art

Invoking Black Masking Traditions, Artist Demond Melancon Beads Elaborate, Celebratory Portraits

March 31, 2022

Grace Ebert

“Say Her Name” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas. All images © Demond Melancon, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery, shared with permission

Through intricately woven displays of minuscule glass beads and rhinestones, Big Chief Demond Melancon continues a legacy. He belongs to the tribe of the Young Seminole Hunters in New Orleans, where he was born and raised, and is a leader in the tradition of creating Mardi Gras suits. The “wearable sculptures” are elaborate and celebratory, and Melancon’s works are known for their immense nature and for exhibiting his deft technical skill. Extremely labor-intensive, the garments tend to envelop their wearer in multiple layers and contain more than one million glass beads precisely stitched into evocative narratives of American history.

For nearly three decades, Melancon has also developed a unique visual language that is both entrenched in the 250-year tradition and working to expand the scope of the practice. “The elders, the Indians, and the Black maskers that masked before me, they never saw this as a contemporary art form in the way that I do,” he tells Colossal. “To me, the elders are watching me, and I think what they taught me is different from what I’ve evolved it into.”

Often encircled by feathers, many of Melancon’s suits revolve around portraits of reggae icons, people who were enslaved and subsequently led revolts, and Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs who came before him. He’s also started to separate these figurative elements from their more comprehensive counterparts in recent years and has produced an extensive series of standalone portraits. The ongoing collection includes people who have been influential in his life and who have broad cultural relevance, including artists like Basquiat and Frida Khalo, ancient Egyptian queen Nefertari, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in 2020. “I like to teach with my work, and I want to make something that’s very meaningful,” he says. “It’s going to tell you something. It’s going to hit you in your heart.”

 

“Most Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

Sometimes years in the making, Melancon’s portraits exemplify his commitment to transforming the small, tactile materials into compositions evocative of painting. He references artists like Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Kehinde Wiley (previously) as inspiration and is equally drawn to those working today as he is to the art historical canon. His style emerged “through studying Botticelli and Caravaggio. I like the light in the old-school paintings, in the Florentine art, in the art from the 1700s.”

Beginning with a black-and-white sketch, Melancon always completes his subjects’ eyes first to “try to bring people back to the living stage with the portraits… so they can live, and they can look at me while I’m beading the rest of the piece.” For the artist, this spirited energy and sense of vitality are directly derived from his bold color palettes that compose a floral blouse or radiant, crown-like headdress.

Although Melancon didn’t mask for this year’s Mardi Gras—instead, he helped garner grants for those participating in the festival through his work on the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund board—he’s currently in progress on a suit titled “Amistad,” in reference to the historic 1839 revolt on the slave ship by the same name. He also plans to continue his portrait series and will see “Say Her Name,” the striking rendering of Taylor acquired by the International African American Museum, on view at the institution when it opens this fall in South Carolina. It’s one of many works that Melancon sees as part of his duty to pass down stories to future generations and teach them about those who’ve profoundly shaped the world today. “That’s another piece that I think in this time very important,” he shares.  “People should remember her situation, and that’s why I bead.”

To explore Melancon’s full portfolio, visit his site and Instagram.

 

“The Deans” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“Wolf Defender” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“The Rennaisance” (2019), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“When She Speaks You Listen” (2021), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“Nefertari Meritmut” (2019), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

“Frida Kahlo” (2019), glass beads and rhinestones on canvas

Portrait of the artist in his studio. Photo by Giles Clement

 

 



Art

Evoking Mythology and Urban Culture, Beaded Masks Brim with Geometric Motifs and Embellishments

September 20, 2021

Grace Ebert

All images © Fefe Talavera, shared with permission

From small shells and Amazonian beads, Brazilian-Mexican artist Fefe Talavera strings together elaborate masks that fuse ancient mythologies and contemporary urban culture. The mixed-media works are part of an ongoing series—Talavera shares more on her site and Instagram, along with vibrant silhouettes painted in acrylic and her large-scale murals—that embellish expressive faces with stripes, symmetries, and various geometric patterns. Sometimes spanning upwards of ten feet or featuring a long tuft of straw, the masks are an amalgam of color, motif, and material that blur cultural boundaries and the tenuous distinction between humanity and nature.

The São Paulo-based artist tells Colossal that the series “developed when my government opened the doors to cattle ranchers, when forest fires began, putting an end to Indigenous tribes, exotic animals, and trees,” and initial iterations used açaí seeds, shells, and mirrors to explore birth and death through a mystical lens. “When we looked at our reflection in the work, we would be seeing ourselves with respect and love, and it is this look that we should have with the Amazonia,” she says.

Currently, Talavera is working on a larger-scale piece using 20,000 beads, and she has a solo show planned for May 2022 at Paris’s Bandy Bandy Gallery.

 

 

 



Art

Assembled Sculptures by Artist Willie Cole Cluster High Heels into Expressive Masks

May 5, 2021

Grace Ebert

“Street Dragon I” (2018), shoes, wire, and screws on a metal stand, 64.5 x 16 x 15.5 inches. Photo by Joerg Lohse. All images © Willie Cole, courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York

Artist Willie Cole juxtaposes readymade footwear and African tradition in his series of sculptural masks. The figurative assemblages stack women’s heels into clusters that are expressive and distinctly unique, an effect Cole derives from the shoes’ material, color, and pattern rather than a preconceived plan or sketch. Depicting exaggerated toothy grins, pointed brows, and outstretched tongues, the sculptures span more than a decade of the artist’s career and influence a new collaboration with Comme des Garçons that’s comprised of headpieces made with black pumps.

Each piece is layered with cultural and societal markers, including those that comment on mass consumerism, fashion trends, and notions of femininity. This context is situated in time and place, which Cole describes as “a subtle catalyst for perception. I have discovered that high heels purchased in New York are very different than high heels purchased in Georgia,” he says. Cole explains:

I guess you could call the high heel both an anxious object and a readymade aid. ‘Anxious’ because as a symbol, it is fully loaded with history and a story all its own even as just a shoe. ‘Readymade aid’ because that history adds so much to your interpretation and/or reaction to these pieces. As for fashion, these pieces speak about the abundance of discarded high heels in the world as well as the various styles and trends.

The New Jersey-based artist is involved in a variety of projects at the moment, including a commission for Kansas City International Airport that’s an homage to Charlie Parker and a series of sculptures made with 75 acoustic Yamaha guitars that’ll raise money for music education. His work is currently on view at Alexander and Bonin in New York City and Beta Pictoris Gallery in Birmingham. This summer, he’s participating in a show at Hauser and Wirth and is involved in an installation celebrating a former Black neighborhood that’s opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this fall. See more from his expansive body of work that largely explores Black identities on his site and Instagram.

 

“Sole Brother 1” (2007), shoes, wire, washers, and screws, 18 x 18 x 19 inches. Photo by Jason Mandella

“Ashley Bickerton” (2016), shoes, wire, and screws on a metal stand, 63.5 x 16 x 15.5 inches. Photo by Joerg Lohse

“Street Dragon II” (2018), shoes, wire, and screws, 19.5 x 15.5 x 10.25 inches. Photo by Joerg Lohse

“Shine” (2007), shoes, wire, washers, screws, and shelf 16 x 15 x 16 inches. Photo by Jason Mandella

“Fly Girl” (2016), shoes, wire, and screws on a metal stand, 65.5 x 15.5 x 15.5 inches. Photo by Joerg Lohse

“Sole Brother 2” (2007), shoes, wire, washers, and screws, 19.5 x 16.75 x 18 inches. Photo by Jason Mandella

 

 

 



Art

Elaborately Constructed LEGO Universes by Artist Ekow Nimako Envision an Afrofuturistic World

April 20, 2021

Grace Ebert

Detail of “Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE” (2019). Photos by Samuel Engelking. All images © Ekow Nimako, shared with permission.

Hundreds of thousands of sleek, black LEGO structure the utopic universes by Toronto-based artist Ekow Nimako. Ranging from life-sized figurative sculptures with an eccentric twist to sprawling landscapes mimicking dense metropolises, Nimako’s artworks are rooted in the visionary realm of Afrofuturism, which “explores the intersection of technology and race to visualize a powerful future for the African diaspora” through a hearty dose of hope and strength.

His ongoing series, Building Black, is an expansive collection that encompasses fantastical masks inspired by West African tradition and mythological characters that draw on folklore and proverbs. Another facet includes a broad, architectural sculpture that expands 30-square-feet. The 2019 work is titled “Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE,” a reference to the capital city of the ancient Ghana Empire that’s thought to have contained a mosque, a central square, and various circuit walls.

 

Left: “Simis” (2019). Right: “Esun” (2020)

Running through each of these artworks is a fluid understanding of time and space that blurs the distinction between generations, locations, and histories in order to imagine a new reality. “We are all living proof of our ancestors, all their joy, love, knowledge, and pain. They live in our DNA,” the Ghanaian-Canadian artist says. “Aesthetically, I enjoy taking elements from bygone eras and creating futuristic landscapes, particularly of African utopias to imagine a liberated existence for us all.”

That blurred temporality that foregrounds his sculptures and installations parallels his own trajectory, as well. “My art practice developed when I was four years old, as I constantly told myself I want to do this (play with LEGO) forever, and sometimes it feels as though my future self communicated with my past self, astrally perhaps, to ensure this very specific destiny manifested,” he says, noting that the plastic blocks have remained a fixture in both his personal and professional life since becoming a father.

 

“Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE” (2019)

Today, Nimako works solely with black LEGO, a choice designed to distinguish his practice from the iconic brand. “My distinction was that I wanted to make artwork for which the medium was secondary,” he shares. “The form and content, the embodiment of life, always comes first with my work.”

In 2017, Nimako published a guide to LEGO animals, Beasts from Bricks, and plans to continue teaching with a tutorial for building afrofuturistic worlds that’ll launch on his site this June. He’ll be included in a  group exhibition at Onsite Gallery starting in June 2022 and also has a solo show slated for October of next year at Dunlop Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan. In the meantime, explore a larger collection of his elaborately designed universes on Instagram. (via Hyperallergic)

 

Detail of “Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE” (2019)

Detail of “Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE” (2019)

“Kadeesa (Griffyx Cub)” (2020)

“Flower Girl” (2019)

Nimako working on a piece. Photo by Janick Laurent

 

 



Art

Evoking Fire and Air, Intricate Paper Masks by Artist Patrick Cabral Honor Filipino Culture

March 15, 2021

Grace Ebert

Detail of “Lupa.” All images © Patrick Cabral, shared with permission

Encircled by oversized crowns of paper, two new masks by Patrick Cabral celebrate Filipino culture through elaborately fashioned works defined by their colors. Titled Mananayaw ng Langit at Lupa, or Dancers of Heaven and Earth, the ongoing series was commissioned by the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art for the Dinagyang Festival. The cultural celebration is held annually the last week in January with the Ati Tribe competition, which involves warrior dancers performing to loud chants and drum beats, as the main event.

Preserving the tradition in paper, Cabral’s masks both mimic the performers’ costumes and draw on the detail and intricacy of his earlier animal figures. “Lupa” is brilliantly colored and embodies the passionate spirits of a dragon or crocodile, representing Earth, fire, and light. “Langit,” on the other hand, is more subdued with bird-like features, peacock feathers, and a quiet expression. It symbolizes air, flight, horizons, and dreams. “Both animals are important because birds are used in ancient sea navigation, which our ancestors are known for, and the crocodile is the biggest animal native to the Philippines…I want one to look calm and the other chaotic. One is a feather. One is fire,” the Manila-based artist says.

Cabral currently is working on an exhibit for the Philippine Pavillion at the World Expo that shares the “courage of our ancestors, the people who brave the angry ocean from Taiwan to the Batanes Islands.” Follow that project and explore a larger collection of the artist’s painstakingly constructed works on Behance and Instagram.

 

“Langit”

“Lupa”

Detail of “Langit”

Detail of “Lupa”

Cabral with “Langit”

 

 



Photography

A Hypnotic Short Film Rhythmically Spins Through 3,745 Masks from Around the World

March 11, 2021

Grace Ebert

Spiraling through ancient, painted faces, cartoon figures, and the now ubiquitous N95, the short film “Beyond Noh” by Patrick Smith (previously) sequences 3,745 masks in an entrancing rhythm. The individual images span multiple cultures and time periods and shift from one to the next with the beat of a hand drum.

A decades-long mask enthusiast, Smith photographed three-fourths of the works from museum archives, galleries, and his own collection, with the remaining segment submitted by folks around the world. “To me, masks are an interesting way to view humanity. It seems to me that every culture in the history of the world has participated in some form of mask making, whether it’s for performance, ritual, protest, or utility,” the director tells Colossal, noting that he finished the film just one month before the first outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States.

This month, “Beyond Noh” is screening at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Stuttgart Animation Festival, Florida Film Festival, and Mecal Barcelona Animation Festival. Watch an excerpt edited exclusively for Colossal above, and stream the full film on Smith’s YouTube channel with a paid subscription. (Thnx, Marcin!)