2020 is coming to a close and we can all agree that it was not the best of years. With a global pandemic disproportionately affecting minorities already afflicted by issues such as racism and police brutality, this year will go down in history as one of the toughest ones for our generation. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked anger, frustration and grief but also fueled massive protests across the country in which people came together and stood up for basic human rights. Artists have also been taking an active role in the movement. Derek Fordjour, an American artist from Ghanaian descent, culminates 2020 by presenting a 3-part exhibition at the Petzel Gallery: “Self Must Die”.
The remarkable Bronx-based artist decides to take the stage to explore grief, death and the vulnerability of being black in America. The show includes an installation “VESTIBULE”, a puppet show “Fly Away” and two gallery rooms filled with paintings of colossal size.
Fordjour, who is known to depict black athletes and performers in his colorful collage paintings, explores the truths 2020 has made so evident:
“What does it look like, entail and mean to attend to, care for, comfort, and defend, those already dead, those dying, and those living lives consigned to the possibility of always-imminent death, life lived in the presence of death … it means work.” -Christina Sharpe
Fordjour's paintings are made with his signature collaging technique: applying layers of newspapers and cardboard onto a black canvass to then be painted with oil pastels. His use of color are shape is undeniably beautiful, looking closely however, one can find cuts that reveal what is beneath the colorful surface. This is one of the ways in which the artists represents the vulnerability that lives within the subjects he depicts, whether accomplished athletes or grieving mothers, one truth that connects them all.
"Chorus of Maternal Grief" commemorates mothers of victims of police brutality from the past few years, including Breonna’s mother. While "Pall Bearers" was inspired by the funeral of George Floyd. Fordjour gets more personal than ever by including portraits of real people in his work.
The installation “VESTIBULE” is nested within a chapel-like room, entered through a narrow door, providing a fully immersive experience to the visitors. The collection of sculptural objects, each with meanings ranging from biblical allegories to Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation and the death of Breonna Taylor, are in constant movement through light, sound, and space.
Running for 28 minutes, and co-created by Derek Fordjour and Nick Lehane, a Brooklyn based award winning puppeteer, “Fly Away” takes you on a profound journey raising poignant questions of control autonomy and interdependence through events encountered by a Fordjour designed puppet, hand crafted by Robert Maldolano. Although we were unable to catch the puppet show, the exhibition left a lasting impression on us and we look forward to seeing further works by Fordjour.
Art has always been a catalyst for change and progress and we hope that through Fordjour's work we will continue to comprehend and address the the issues that have marked and continue to mark the lives of many.