For the last ten years, the artist Rico Gatson has carefully cut out well known black and white images of celebrated black politicians, writers, musicians, boxers, and civil rights leaders, recontextualizing them from the cultural and political realities that define them. For example, Gatson places a found image of Shirley Chisholm, the politician and a 70s symbol of black feminism, in a field of geometric lines evoking minimalism. A selection of Gatson's dynamic works on paper of legends like John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Angela Davis, and James Baldwin are currently on view in Rico Gatson: Icons 2007-2017 at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
"I was inspired by the legacy of the figures depicted," Gatson tells Creators. "In certain instances, it's their social or political activism and in others it's the beauty imbued in their lives and work." The exhibition, curated by Hallie Ringle, contains a timelessness and celebrates the contributions of black thought to civil rights and the progress of American culture.
Cassius depicts boxer Cassius Clay, who after converting to Islam, took the name Muhammed Ali. The boxer and outspoken critic of discrimination in America in the 60s and 70s, is seen floating at the top of the page. His arms are stretched out in victory, as red and black rays of color shoot from his hands. "I wanted to visually express the radiance and power of each subject," says the artist of the collages. "I was originally thinking of them as superheroes."
Marvin #1, a work depicting Marvin Gaye, depicts the figure wearing a high-waisted suit, his hips cocked and arms raised high as if he is in the middle of grooving to a Motown beat. The array of red, green, and black emitting from his clinched fists imply the tricolor flag of Pan Africanism. Gaye's landmark 1971 album What's Going On, which critiques the Vietnam War, injustice, and poverty, is commonly called one of the best protest and pop albums in American musical history. Gatson seems to be saying that Gaye and the other figures represent a contemporary black conscience, formed from cultural and power shifts, as well as the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.
"A common thread is that their work and lives had resonance and power, yet many had tragic ends or suffered tremendously during their life," says the artist. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for seeking true equality among the races; Nina Simone was blackballed out of music for riotously honest songs like Mississippi Goddamn, and the Black Panther-turned-professor Angela Davis was charged with a murder she didn't commit. Gatson's abstract representations of these black iconic figures in geometric realities challenge the viewer to focus on the complete histories and legacies of the individuals.
"I hope the works inspire people and remind them of the absolute significance of these figures," says Gatson. Each left an indelible mark on the arts, culture, politics, and history." He says the ongoing series, which maps the significance of blackness in American life, will grow to include more historic American masters like Malcolm X, Sarah Vaughn, and Josephine Baker. "I recently completed [a] work of Michelle Obama," he adds.
Rico Gatson: Icons continues through August 27 at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Click here for more information.