Just three months ago, no one could tell fine artist Chelle Barbour she'd be premiering her first solo exhibition, or that Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett would co-curate that show, helping to oversee the image selections and overall visual flow. Yet, the inconceivable has come true. A California native, Barbour’s art show opened in a Los Angeles gallery last Saturday, with the honor of having a true legend associated with her work.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Barbour said about the unexpected come-up. “It wasn’t until I read the promotional materials that I knew it was real — that Angela Bassett took interest in my work. It is divine order.”
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With Angela Bassett, co-curator of my solo exhibition, You IS Pretty:Surrealism in the Black Imaginary. There are no words to express my gratitude for the Band of Vices team and their artisartis6t-centric vision. FYI Ms. Bassett is a true Queen, erudite art collector, and the embodiment of beauty and grace (and hella cool) Thank you! SEE YOU NEXT SATURDAY / #blackgirlmagic #artistsoninstagram #artist #angelabassett #curator #blackart #newyorker #laweekly #publicfigure
Barbour aggregates magazine cutouts, layering them until they evolve into images, which convey black feminine presence and comeliness. While deconstructing the commercialized ideology of black women that permeates print media, the artist uses these same materials to magnify their beauty, synthesizing their essence into her own work.
The exhibition pays homage to black women by leaving the traditional, physical identifying features, such as one’s nose or lips, intact. The collagist's intention is to punctuate blackness, both literally and unapologetically. The ornate attributes used to construct the images lend themselves to the imagination, an expression very much rooted in surrealism.
However, Afro-surrealism — “the literary and cultural aesthetic that is a response to mainstream surrealism, in order to reflect the lived experience of people of color” — is perhaps a more applicable term for Barbour’s artistic approach, especially when it comes to her nuanced images featuring a mash-up of animal peculiarity and fierce, feminine blackness.
The intensity of Barbour’s collages not only celebrate all that is dear and queer about black female beauty, it also urges viewers to do the same.
As hard as it is to move away from, the artist’s work is timely in its goal to subvert the ways in which those who are not of African descent can objectify black women, whether consciously or subconsciously. While some might doubt the prevalence of this behavior or way of thinking in 2018, it’s unfortunately more commonplace than most realize. Just recently, Australian newspaper The Herald Sun ran a cartoon that grotesquely depicted tennis legend Serena Williams throwing a tantrum on the court juxtaposed with a demurely drawn Naomi Osaka. The drawing received tons of criticism — even author J.K. Rowling called out the cartoon’s sexist and racist overtures on Twitter.
Barbour’s work is antithetical to the poor taste of cartoonist Mark Knight’s drawing of Serena, and she could care less about whether the dominant culture feels negatively about black women or how they may receive her work.
“My work is unapologetically black and layered in symbolism. In consideration of how black women are perceived as "the Other," the recontextualized figures in this corpus serve as interlocutors who are Infinitely transcendent and beyond objectification.”
The bonus is “YOU IS PRETTY!” features creative work that even What’s Love Got To Do With It actress Angela Bassett can get into. Inspired by Barbour’s theme, Bassett “found her work to be really strong and really striking in many ways.”
“When I, as an artist, look out into the world, I find those voices, whether it be art or music or narration, that celebrate our beauty, our being different, as a strength, as something positive,” Bassett told Artnet News about her connection to Barbour’s work.
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