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Issue 236

‘The Alchemists’ Ritualizes Black Culture

At Johnson Lowe Gallery, Atlanta, a group show centres how Black visual culture is transmuted into wide-ranging practices

BY Lisa Yin Zhang in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 04 APR 23

Before I set foot in the gallery, Mark Bradford’s large-scale canvas Playing Castles (2022) greets me through a window. It reads as a tortured aerial map: deep scratches have pulled across nearly dry paint so forcefully that it’s ceded, leaving bare canvas peeking through like an old wound. But end papers – a staple in caring for Black hair – are layered into the work, and bright yellow paint, applied with the same devotional care as gold leaf on a religious icon, illuminates the rough surface like city lights or the nodes of a vast neural system. Bradford’s painting hints at the show within: the mysticism emergent from repetitious labour; the way space and time fold through the force of identity; the possibility of transformation within all things. These themes animate ‘The Alchemists’, a group show of 28 Black artists, co-curated by Seph Rodney and Donovan Johnson at Johnson Lowe, Atlanta.

An assemblage of round objects arranged symmetrically on a wall; they look like they have faces
Masela Nkolo, Umoja Symposium, 2021, metal, glass, oil paint, acrylic paint, 1.2 × 3.6 m. Courtesy: the artist

Masud Olufani’s Rhythm Section (2022), a suite of three motorized mortars and pestles pounding millet – a millennia-old practice in cultures across the African continent – provides a grinding soundtrack to one wing of the show. By opting to paint the pestles black, green, red and yellow – the colours of pan-African liberation – Olufani suggests that within such repetitive acts lies the kernel of culture, even identity. Around the corner, Masela Nkolo’s Umoja Symposium (2021) consists of a syncretic frieze of pareidolia-inducing objects such as oil lanterns, bicycle frames and steamers. As a child growing up in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, Nkolo began repairing lanterns, a vital household item after the Congolese Civil Wars (1993–99) rendered electricity unreliable. With the sound of Olufani’s pestles pounding in the background, the lanterns look like they might magically come alight again, even whir into flight.

An installation view of two works: to the left, a large canvas of a number of deer and half-men half deer, escaping from a cop car, against a similarly-patterned wallpaper; to the right, a paper work with a black figure and black hair in various portions of the page
‘The Alchemists’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Johnson Lowe, Atlanta

Shanequa Gay’s flashe-and-acrylic on wood get that doe… (2015) depicts silhouetted figures – some mid-transmutation into deer, that most innocent of hunted animals – running and leaping wildly from an approaching police car. Space, here, has been warped into surreal proportions: the road opens up wider than the canvas, entrapping the viewer; the natural whorl of the wood, toned like white flesh, evokes a portal threatening to swallow the fleeing men. The foremost figure, knee bent, rests his toes along the bottom edge of the canvas, as if poised to leap out of the frame: indeed, the wall, painted with whirling elongated deer-men alongside large-petaled flowers, suggests freedom, but also limbo or mourning.

Three works: one, a thicker Black man wearing an African mask, odalisque-pose; in the background, a portrait of a woman in all glittery material; to the right, a video work of a woman in lingerie at her oven, a pair of headphones beside
‘The Alchemists’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Johnson Lowe, Atlanta

Follow a clockwise circuit of the show and you’ll end with Danielle Deadwyler’s Kitchen Installation #1 (2013), in which a lingerie-clad Black woman cleans an oven to ‘Pop That’ (2013) by French Montana, only her bottom half visible while the lyrics play: ‘Drop that pussy bitch / What ya twerkin’ wit’?’ After the international tour of violence and mysticism that is the rest of the show, this piece could feel banal: we’ve been returned to the flat domestic reality of the subjugation of women by men. The music, however, is endogenous: we’re not, in fact, watching a woman’s self-obliteration to a deprecating soundtrack. Rather, she’s listening to it, cleaning her house, feeling herself: this is self-care ritual turned ritualized identity affirmation.

A beautiful, shimmering figure laced with jewels and glitter such that they are almost obscured against a black and pink background
Ebony G. Patterson, below..., 2021, mixed media on jacquard woven photo tapestry and custom vinyl wallpaper, 2.6 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist

Or you might end, instead, at the feet of Ebony G. Patterson’s below... (2021), which similarly transforms banal substrate into a work that emanates power. A multi-armed figure rendered with patchwork floral quilting is almost completely obscured by swathes of monarch butterflies, encrusted flowers and deluges of plastic beads. ‘This looks exactly like a doll I used to have,’ a fellow visitor marvelled to me, pointing to a ragged pink polka-dotted ribbon camouflaged in the phantasmagoria. Each time the doll had fallen apart, she told me, her mother had stitched it back together. To see it again, in this form, a headpiece to this deity – what magic.

‘The Alchemists’ is on view at Johnson Lowe, Atlanta, until 29 April. 

Main image: Navin Norling, Overdue Honor, 2004–2022, acrylic, spray paint, ink, chain and collage on glass and wood panel, 3.2 × 3.2 m. Courtesy: the artist

Lisa Yin Zhang is assistant editor at frieze.