Giving Voice To The Voiceless In Christopher Myers’ Drapetomania
Opening an outpost in Los Angeles, the well-known New York-based gallery, Fort Gansevoort, chose artist, author, and play-write Christopher Myers’ Drapetomaniaas its inaugural exhibition in this city. Myers’ large-scale, mural-sized textile works and powerfully bleak sculptures create a stirring initial show.
Myers terms his applique quilt textile work “not material-specific but specific about materials.” His interest in working with fabric began six years ago in Ghana. The work is hand-stitched, though not entirely by himself; he utilizes the skills of fabric workers in Luxor. “I send black and white renderings, the fabric I want to use, a color rendering, and what colors are important. We use What’s App all the time,” he laughs. While the art is compelling, the stories depicted in each work are all the more so.
The exhibition’s title references a pseudoscientific theory of “mental illness” that alluded to an “irrational” desire to flee, an “affliction,” in other words, that led enslaved Africans to attempt escape. It’s an appropriate title for an exhibition that focuses on myth-making in the modern era, not to mention the references to apocryphal tales from an earlier day.
One of the strongest, most visceral examples of Myers as modern-day narrator of urban tale — not so much myth as it is an anti-gospel of our times — is What Does it mean to matter (Community Autopsy), in which the silhouettes of depicted figures are riddled with bullet holes. Displayed in the front window, the casting of natural light and shadow adds to the poignancy of the piece. Myers says the work grew out of a talk he gave to educators about Black Lives Matter. “The figures are based on people you’ve heard of, like Sandra Bland, based on their autopsy reports…I’m interested in how you make them more than just bodies on that report. How do you go from those kinds of photos of bodies to shape stories that make you take heed.”
The moving, visceral aspect of the entire exhibition’s backstory is heighted by the fact that Myers has been visiting juvenile detention centers for the past 15 years as an author and illustrator. Our culture accepts the imprisonment of over 50,000 children; we are a nation that pays lip-service to freedom but pledges allegiance to bondage as much as liberty. From slavery to colonialism and the decimation of America’s Native American population, ours is a conflicted history indeed, with the shadows of oppression lurking just below the surface of our seemingly dulcet American Dream.
Myers says he thinks of his works as flags, those of “a tiny nation I believe in for a moment.” The largest works are the broadest in scope as well as scale, with topics such as global climate change, which is evoked in How to Name a Famine, a Fire, a Flood. Myers says “With climate change, my discussion is how do we translate that change into history?” The work also depicts those most effected by such a change: poor and marginalized communities.
Another highly charged piece is The Talented Tenth and the Beauty of Statistics. Here, Myers depicts WEB DuBois’s data visualization developed for the Paris Exposition of 1900, making those data sets beautiful to behold as geometric shapes, while extrapolating on DuBois’ desires to lay out the position of African Americans to an international audience. Myers shares with DuBois a global way of thinking about freedom, and the contexts in which freedom is discussed, realized, or hoped for.
As a play-write as well as a visual artist, Myers is also keenly interested in the theatrical. In another, smaller scale series of textile works, he pays homage to performing icons. One, Waiting for No One, represents the world of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, specifically a production Myers was involved with in New Orleans in which one of the play’s stars was actor Wendell Pierce. Of this section of the exhibition, the artist notes that works reference things he’s loved in the arts and theater, including everything from dance to Buster Keaton (Deadpan Buster). Myers’ rich literary background creates a vast series of references in his work, from history to film to obscure literary works, references such as a Senegalese film, an Afrofuturist film, a silent Japanese horror film, and a feminist Utopian story from 1905.
In an upstairs loft space, the textile works grow physically more diminutive but no less powerful. These are highly intimate works, which Myers describes as “a smaller, more personal mythology.” Here, too, his subjects are varied and wide ranging. Myers relates, “I’ve been called an ‘input monster.’ I identify with Argus, the monster with a thousand eyes. I’m interested in all the ways that narrative with one’s self interacts with others…the only language I speak really well is making a story that resonates.”
In Fire in My Head, Myers references famed ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, once described as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century. Nijinsky was both genius and madman: he wrote a memoir documenting his fall into schizophrenia, which Myers’ title represents.
As powerful as the subjects, vivid colors, and stark silhouettes are in Myers’ textile works, a series of sculptures also on display at the gallery are possibly even more potent. Three strong works on the main floor were inspired by the slave trade, and the artist’s fascination with the dichotomy of our nation’s fascination with both freedom and bondage, that precious freedom often dependent on the bondage of others.
The largest of these works features a series of lit candles extending outward from a central, faceless bust of a human head. That head is also shackled within a black iron collar. Titled Shackle and Light, the work touches upon the fact that in many cases the skilled iron workers called to create the shackles worn by slaves, were themselves enslaved Africans. “We were making our own chains…the shackles were both literal and conceptual. They push away your humanity with things like collars with bells. Slavery is really social death,” Myers attests. “I thought what could one build that brings a sense of ambiguity, about how you can hold your light in these kinds of moments.” The piece is the first in a series, and it is riveting — the dark outward spirals of the iron candle holders, the shackled head as centerpiece. It is a candelabra of horror that nonetheless supports and extends a worshipful glow.
Made of Ink is a considerably smaller blown-glass sculpture of a man, black with ink. “I wanted to create something that expresses the fact that I’m full of stories. This is what I’m made of,” he says. With a cork topping the head of the work, it succinctly expresses the idea that should one “uncork” all those ideas, the ink, the passion, the lifeblood of the artist himself, spills everywhere.
The third sculptural work has perhaps the most fascinating story of all behind it. A Doubling of Cages (for an unnamed African-American sideshow geek in a WPA photograph), features a rat inside a tangled gold wire cage. Many African-Americans were displayed in freak shows put on by P.T. Barnum. “One was identified as the ‘oldest woman in the world,’ and said she was George Washington’s nursemaid, Joyce Heath. Another was a displayed as a robot, and was really a little person inside a costume. People tend to simplify the story about these performers and make them victims,” Myers explains, “but you have to remember in the 1830s they were working as performers. There’s agency in that.”
And there is also a powerful agency in all of Myers’ work, as he mythologizes, theorizes, fantasizes, and exposes the raw nerves that have always riven American society. He elevates the disenfranchised, the forgotten, giving the too-often silenced or voiceless a sanctified voice. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the title of Myers’ work Monument to Shouting, in which trumpet-like ribbons stream from a man’s lips. The man has one hand outstretched, both pushing back and beseeching, demanding that we hear him. One would do well to listen.