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Posted under: Editorial Desk Visual Arts

Philadelphia Artist Shawn Theodore Conveys The Essence Of Black Excellence In His Latest Exhibit

On the tail end of his inaugural solo museum show, Shawn Theodore is just getting started.

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Shawn Theodore is a star.

I met the artist at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, where his first ever solo museum exhibit, Church of Broken Pieces (closing April 2nd), is on display. The collection of artwork features a gorgeous array of black people in a sort of "folklore fantasy" (as Theodore describes it) based in reality. The craft of each piece is undeniably breathtakingly beautiful and I've never seen anything like it.

Photo: Morgan Maassen

Theodore was born in Stuttgart, West Germany, but as a child, was raised in his parents’ hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “My dad is from West Philly, in a neighborhood called the Bottom, and my mom’s from Devon, PA. So that’s like as urban as you can go, and as rural as you can go. The two of them make me,” Theodore explained. He has always been a visual artist, but before arriving at this grand place of showing his work in a respected museum, he was a semi-pro cyclist (“That was because of my dad. That was his dream.”) and, more recently, a creative director for a Baltimore cosmetics company (which he left to fully dedicate himself to his art).

Photo: Namon Eugene
Photo: Namon Eugene
Photo: Blavity

The African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) is “the the first institution built by a major United States city to house and interpret the life and work of African Americans”, and has been steadily showing black artwork since its founding in 1976. This year, they are celebrating its 40th anniversary. Theodore’s prestigious placement of his work in the historic space came to him somewhat by chance. “There was another show in 2015. It was a local show. Small show. There were two or three people in it that were really good, but not as well known. I was like ‘yo, I’m coming through.' It might be a small show, but it’s talent and brains in there. I get down there, and there were a group of folks from AAMP there too. They came over to me and asked, ‘Are you Shawn Theodore?’ I was like, ‘Yeah. Hey. How are you doing? I’m just here for this. I ain’t talking about me right now.’ They were like, ‘Nah nah nah, we’re from the African American Museum and we really want you to meet our director. I replied, ‘yeah, I would like to meet your director.’” Theodore’s gorgeous, warm smile flashed across his face as he recalled the encounter. “It was perfect timing because I was starting to wonder where I was gonna go, in terms of exhibiting work.”

After discussions with AAMP began, they informed Theodore that he would have to wait two years to present his work…for good reason. “They said, ‘Would you like to kick off our Black History Month in 2017?’ I was like, hell yeah!” Theodore bursted into laughter while explaining the fortuitous lining up of events.

Photo: Shawn Theodore | "Supermaasi"
Photo: Shawn Theodore | "Supermaasi"
Photo: Shawn Theodore | "Supermaasi"

My discovery of Shawn Theodore was back in February while scouring Instagram to compile a list of dope photographers. But my accolade of his distinctive work was far from the first. A former painter, Theodore now creates his art through photography. Bright colors and dark shadows are a consistent theme throughout his work, and others have taken notice — big time.

Photo: Apple
Photo: Apple
Photo: Apple

His piece, “Being Black Outweighs One’s Blues" (currently featured in his Church of Broken Pieces exhibit) landed on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine back in September 2016. And a few other pieces of his work were front and center in the Apple commercial for the new MacBook Pros, released last October (“They took care of a brother,” he joked). Oddly (but appropriately, being in the digital age we dwell in today) these things happened because of the internet. Because of Instagram, to be more specific.

Photo: Shawn Theodore | "The Marching Blues"
Photo: Shawn Theodore | "The Marching Blues"
Photo: Shawn Theodore | "The Marching Blues"

Theodore has over 60k followers on Instagram that adore his artwork, but he seems to have a conscious slight pull from making social media the online destination for himself and his compositions. This year, he debuted his own website (with a cool, but simple url: shawntheodo.re), and in a blog post there, he explained why he decided to build a digital space of his own. “The creative process isn't always pretty, fast or made to order for social media consumption. But there is a reason, as an artist, to journal the moments between the finished artwork and to showcase what's critically important to that end.”

Photo: Shawn Theodore | “I am what you see and what you cannot, African. American. No.2”
Photo: Shawn Theodore | “I am what you see and what you cannot, African. American. No.2”
Photo: Shawn Theodore | “I am what you see and what you cannot, African. American. No.2”

In the AAMP that afternoon, Theodore and I walked around his exhibit for almost an hour. We chatted about the young lady in his piece, “I am what you see and what you cannot, African. American. No.2” (“She’s one of my best friends from Baltimore, now”), discussed the origin of his social media handle @_xST (It’s short for “exist”, which is short for “existentialism”), and we even got into non-POC making black art (“Black folks are looking at it saying, ‘this is black excellence', and I’m like…but we ain’t making the art.”) Theodore, the person, is just as intellectually alluring as his art.

The time was almost 4:00 p.m., and I had a subtle feeling that I needed to wrap the conversation up. Theodore is in demand. He had another talk scheduled in half an hour. He left me with some final words on his feelings about the exhibit, and being an artist in general. “This show is a labor of love for me. I really, truly, love pulling out all these pieces of blackness. This is everything that I’m doing right now, and I’ll continue to do it.”

Shawn Theodore’s closing event will be April 1, 2017 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Click here for more information.


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Namon is a staff writer and editor, here at Blavity.