Continuing it’s increasingly wonderful talks series Art History 201, in which visiting contemporary artists discuss the place of their work in the history of art, the San Antonio Museum of Art welcomes New York-based multi-media artist and provocateur Rashaad Newsome. A critically-lauded artist with features and solo exhibitions aplenty—from his home state of Louisiana to NYC, Savanna, GA, Toronto, Berlin, London, and many more—Newsome works with collage, painting, performance, and video to explore and celebrate subcultures, often taking inspiration from seemingly disparate sources and producing striking juxtapositions that demand critical thinking. He is equally adept at culling material from art history as from hip-hop, dance, popular culture, and critical theory. Newsome’s most important work challenges stereotypes and misconceptions portrayed by the media and the government, including faulty assumptions about gender and racial identity, in a direct and endlessly fruitful way.
In order to get a better idea of what he will focus on in Friday’s talk, I posed a few questions to Newsome via email. Check that interview (and a short video composition by the artist) below.
Tell me a bit about how it came to be that you work in so many different mediums. Do you typically come up with a theme divorced from medium first, or does the inspiration for the medium typically come along with the thematic inspiration?
I think my varied practice comes from curiosity and my unique training experience. I have a BFA in Art History, I have a certificate of study from the now closed Film Video Arts NYC in post-production, and I have studied MAX/MSP & Jitter programming and music production at Harvestworks NYC. All these skills are employed when making the work. Over the years, as I have grown as an artist, I have acquired new skills. Like [with] Conceptual artists, the ideas involved in the work drive it. However, unlike Conceptual artists, I am still very concerned with the aesthetic and material concerns of the work.
What particular work or aspect of your work will you be focusing on in your talk this Friday at San Antonio Museum of Art?
Overarching themes in [my] work, the framework in which my collages are functioning, and how I got to the ideas that inform my current show at DeBuck Gallery ‘STOP PLAYING IN MY FACE!‘
Your work often deals, in subtle and not so subtle ways, with issues of gender identity. With the whole transgender bathroom debate raging, and trans-consciousness now more a part of our culture than ever, what do you see as the value of work that deals with gender identity? How can art be used as a tool for teaching and/or at least creative productive dialogue?
My work has often explored the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender. The works in ‘STOP PLAYING IN MY FACE!’ are an intersectional look at how one accesses agency and how immensely connected it is to whatever one’s privilege is in terms of race, capitalism, and gender. Using images from popular culture that produce and perpetuate systems of oppression, I explore how race, capitalism, and gender are employed to facilitate those systems. In the extraordinary film ‘Cultural Criticism & Transformation,’ Bell Hooks speaks about how popular culture is where the pedagogy is. My use of material from popular culture is a subversive way of helping the viewers to understand the politics of difference.
Who are your greatest artistic inspirations?
So many. But, to name a few, Bell Hooks, my community, Theaster Gates,Wangechi Mutu, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Hannah Höch, Glenn Ligon,Kara Walker, John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
As a student of art history, how do you see your own work in the lineage of American art?
I see myself as part of the lineage of movements like Dada, Cubism, and Surrealism, to name a few. However, I must think critically about that and say African art in general has informed all of those western movements. I feel connected to the artists of the Dada movement aesthetically and in some ways politically. Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I, which claimed the lives of eight million military [members] and an equal number of civilians. In 2015 police killed over 100 unarmed black people. The Human Rights Campaign report documented 21 transgender homicide victims so far in 2015, almost all of which were transgender women of color, and likely an underestimate due to the difficulty of tracking the homicides. Among all 53 transgender murders from 2013 to 2015, not a single one was prosecuted or reported as a hate crime. The general feeling in the POC LGBTQ and Gender Non-conforming Community is that there is a war against us. Like the artists of the Dada movement, I feel this has to do with the extensive degradation of social structures: corrupt politics, blatant denial, squeezed economics, and wounds in the soul. However, unlike Dada artists, I don’t consider the the aesthetic of my work secondary to the ideas. Like the Dadaists I do embrace and critique popular culture and incorporate technology and advertisements that define and critique contemporary life. All and all, I think my work is an amalgamation of several moments in art history, with the most important one being the now.
By James Courtney