In the 90s, Washington, DC was thought of as a great American city in decline. Crime and blight dominated representations of the city in the news media, and little was known about the lives of the city's majority black population.
The artist Arcmanoro Niles, who grew up in Washington, DC, remembers it differently, and in a new solo exhibition, Arcmanoro Niles: The Arena, at Long Gallery Harlem, he explores his upbringing through striking paintings of life size black figures and abstract, lurking, Trickster-esque characters the artist calls "Seekers," all situated within the District's urban landscape. In Niles's paintings, the capital becomes a mise-en-scéne of orange moments mixing fantasy and realism to provide a window into the painter's childhood and the friends, family, and community that existed beyond the headlines.
"When I started the first painting a year ago, I had set out to make a body of work about protectors, thinking about who watches over who and who was really kept who safe or did the saving," Niles tells Creators. The scenes feature those not seen as obvious protectors, like children. Works like The Gift of the Offspring and The Prize honor the role kids in his neighborhood played in transforming their parents lives. "As I worked on the paintings, I started to think more about the figures' relationship to each other and their environment, and what motivated their actions and connections and what happens when those connections were lost," Niles adds.
The artist grew up in the North East neighborhood of Washington, DC, but the communities depicted on canvas are constructed from moments of conflated architecture and memory, producing what Niles calls "a middle space." It's the city reflected through a community viewed as both dangerous and peaceful, and as a big community that felt like a small town because everyone knew each other. The complications and contradictions of this middle space can be seen in A Safe Place Since Birth (Sisters), a portrait of two sisters in repose, standing on the steps outside a brick building. A menacing Seeker is seen near their feet, seemingly foreshadowing an unsettling future.
Distant Stranger (Welcomer), a self-portrait of the artist with a stick figure Seeker in the background, is painted—like all of the figures in the show—in a high-chroma midtone. "The orange is really important in the paintings, from a technical standpoint," says the artist. He notes that the palette is in service of the flesh of his figures, because it allows him to overexpose their brown and black skin tones. "With the orange, I can use very saturated reds and yellows to paint flesh and just flood the skin with color. One of the beautiful things about people of color, for me, are the reds, the purples, and the golden tones that glow. I wanted to push that as far as I can, while still having it be recognizably a specific group of people."
The paintings in The Area work together to present a neighborhood like any other in America. The Classroom features schoolchildren playing in a park; Rose Bush depicts a flowering plant in a yard; and in We Played As Kids, a group of men gather around a set of steps, their unshakeable bond forged by growing up together in the community. On display in every urban scene is a black interiority that often escapes any mainstream telling of black life, but is experienced nonetheless by neighbors, friends, and family in the places they call home.
"I created moments where the figures are engaged with the viewer, looking at them in their eyes," says the painter. "I wanted the viewer to, in a sense, walk through the neighborhood, sometimes interrupting, but always being greeted in some way by its residents." Niles says the figures are life size for a reason—"so you would believe you were walking through this environment with golden houses and sidewalks right up to the people and Seekers that live there."
Arcmanoro Niles: The Arena continues through June 4 at Long Gallery Harlem.