Is a Black woman the link between heaven and earth?
Review by Wanda Sabir
Born in Pittsburgh, yet raised in Oakland, David Bruce Graves has been drawing and making art all of his life. His career began in the commercial art field, when he graduated from the Academy of Art in San Francisco at the University of San Francisco before heading for New York City, where he lived and worked for many years. He says he wished he’d studied there so that he’d have had more access to working professionals during his collegiate years, but he made a success of it nonetheless before returning to the Bay Area in 2012.
This success, Graves says, is directly connected to his relationship with his aunt, Ann Tanksley, who was and is a fabulous artist, and her husband John, who was one of the best photo retouchers in New York City. When the artist’s family would visit the Tanksley home in New York, when he was a child, he says, “I was enchanted by their world and how they were so successful at it.
“Aunt Ann inspired and mentored me as she still does. John Tanksley took me under wing in a sense when I eventually moved there, and the many hours I spent looking over his shoulder as he retouched and manipulated photos for major advertising agencies had a big influence and closely relates to the technique I’m currently working in.”
He’s still shy in talking about the work which, in its presentation, one can see how much thinking goes into each piece. Nonetheless, visual art is the kind of medium where silence is often justified. In Graves’s work, one wants an opportunity to just live in the painting and extrapolate what a character might be thinking, as in “The Griot’s Wife,” where we see a man with a bag and his musical instrument, the kora, preparing for a storytelling journey. His wife walks with him, yet her eyes speak volumes as she appears to contemplate her husband’s impending departure.
Questions arise in a person after contemplating the work. Too bad there are no chairs or benches in the larger gallery. Each of the 31 pieces deserves its own audience and then there is the art in the window – stunning. The title work, “Heaven and Earth,” is there along with “Bush,” as in Angela Davis’s hairstyle crossed with Eve and Adam’s abode, or maybe it’s the countryside just outside of Accra – a place untamed, natural, pure.
Hopefully, the weather will stay warm and dry so patrons can step outside and check out the art displayed in the Joyce Gordon Gallery (JGG) window, 406 14th St. in downtown Oakland. Angela Davis might have had a bush, but this “bush” is a world atop a woman’s head. Butterflies and hummingbirds like the protagonist’s energy too. Graves’s butterfly motif imprint, like an artistic DNA, allows one to trace artistic creations through the large gallery from wall to window across multiple canvases. Images of warriors standing unafraid with wild animals – cheetahs in “The Swift” – as other images show characters dissolving, turning swiftly spinning into funnels, whirlwinds juxtaposed with youthful energy, rites of passage and liberated women stepping from the plantation into commerce and prosperity.
Graves says he is fascinated by the period after captivity when Africans could join this American society as participants economically and politically. So we see these women in compositions: “Flor De Noche (Flower of Night),” “Freebird,” “Lady and the Tramp,” African American women dressed for success challenging prejudicial and racist ideas of worthiness or equality.
In other work, not in this exhibition, Graves adds future elements like spacecraft, an allusion to the Dogon, who perfected cosmic travel without leaving the ground. Graves’s work is layered and illustrates for finite minds the infinite span that is African culture – whether this is the Western episode characterized by African enslavement which seems to have run its course or what is to come. Slavery does not define African people; “Heaven and Earth” puts this in perspective.
These compositions show characters who are emancipated, free from white pathology. Graves’s characters, the majority of whom are Black women, are take-charge personas. It is no wonder his work flies from the walls or bins wherever he exhibits.
When asked why he paints Black women, he says simply that African women inspire him. I guess everyone needs a muse and there is nothing wrong with seeing such beautiful African Diaspora women cover JGG walls. When I visited Graves’s fine arts website I saw a rendering of his mother and father. I can’t wait to have that conversation with him about his parents and how they nurtured his desire to draw.
David Bruce Graves’s “Heaven and Earth” exhibit at Joyce Gordon Gallery through Feb. 28 is more residency than typical art showcase. African people have agrarian roots pre-captivity. This connection between Black people and the earth is a constant theme in this exhibition and is intended to remind patrons of relationships reflected in African spirituality. Such acknowledgement affirms the ashay or energy that courses through all beings regardless of said entities’ presentation. Whether one shows up as a rock or a tree, a leopard or a butterfly, we are from the same river.
“Heaven and Earth” speaks to the first peoples, African people’s responsibility to care for and protect the planet. It is from this place – respect for all things – from which ethics and values emerge. These principles feed consciousness, which fuels a kind of soul force that Africans in the Diaspora retain despite efforts to separate or to erase who we are.
Dianne D. Glave, author of “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage” (2010), looks at the “two strands of environmentalism – the first is preservation of what some might term the ‘wild places,’ like the ocean, the woods and swamps. The second is [concerned] with natural resources, including land, water, forests and minerals. … (R)ural African Americans often applied both ideologies.” Key voices in this discourse are George Washington Carver, Ned Cobb and Thomas Monroe Campbell. These men saw the earth as something living which could be injured. Dr. Carver, the director of the Tuskegee Experiment Station said: “‘Unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing. If I am unkind to you I do you an injustice, or wrong you in some way. On the other hand, if I try to assist you in every way that I can to make a better citizen and in every way to do my very best for you I am kind. The above principles apply with equal force to the soil.”
Dr. King calls this is the “love ethic,” and one of the keys to “a beloved community.” At a time when ignoring the planet and its species hastens the end of life as we know it, Graves’s work poses options, some involving magical thinking. The artist illustrates across multiple compositions how powerful Black people are, whether it is “Black Panther Lives” – his persona marked by distinctive African lips and wide nostrils or in another work a glowing third eye watches from an oracle’s forehead. On the journey to this foreign place, African people learned to speak in colors and form, such as Graves displays in his “Songhai Woman,” an insight into his creative process.
If we look at “Songhai Woman,” the work is both intellectual and pragmatic. Her character is a composite of multiple images – a nose, eyes, ears from different models. While other characters in titles such as “Swan Lake” or “Venus Africanus” are women who have modeled for Graves, “Songhai” starts with several found archival photos which the artist methodically layers in a digital application to create the composition. As we spoke, Graves showed me where water color effects and textures transformed the dominant figure as it passively interacted with the other mediums. Who would have known technology had such capability?
In Graves’s works, unraveling is a part of a larger process of building, rearranging – allowing textures to develop as the ingredients, like spices, migrate or move from aroma to concept. I asked if he were a sort of an Obatala, the god of the white cloth, who created the human form. Graves said he was more a Visual DJ – sampling, scanning and remixing as he rocks to tracks from Black Coffee and Louie Vega. He uses both Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter to work his magic and it is magical. Imagine a young African woman goat herder, a kid on her shoulders. There is a work depicting another young woman with a crocodile lifted over her head, “Genesis” open at her feet. This canvas is unframed waiting for a purchase in a print bin. It’s one of several deals; Graves’s work is affordable.
The artist said he works between two large 32-inch screen monitors, a move from traditional mediums to digital. Strategic randomness marks his canvas as colors juxtaposed in unusually creative ways have one’s head swiveling – the glass bead textures and almost tie dye moments on some canvases make fingers itch to touch.
“Heaven and Earth” is peopled by characters we’d like to know about, especially the stoic yet beautifully serene Mother-Goddess, whose rendering is what one might call the title track. In the work exhibited here at JGG, Graves illustrates the synergy between Africans and their environment, whether it’s “Traveler,” where we see a youth in his robe and kufi hat striding across an open plain, or the already mentioned “Africanus,” a multi-limbed goddess standing on water swirling beneath her feet. She is Kali and Yemanja.
In “Suns of the Maasai,” there are boys becoming young warriors through initiation. In other works, there are ravens in league with oracles, favelas and statues of Jesus. In “Swan Lake,” Graves suggests multiple endings to a story that shares many origins. The woman pictured wears the swan like a sarong, the bird comfortably draped over one shoulder, while other swans swim near her feet. A lush forest surrounds her on a bright day. David said that the natural surroundings in this work were from his walks at Lake Chabot in Castro Valley. The water reminds me of Oṣun River in Oṣogbo, Nigeria.
Graves compositions allow histories or multiple narratives to exist simultaneously. His work is not stagnant, rather the artist invites us into the medium to share our perspectives. We are in the now and then, joined at the horizon or along the edges where the two calabashes meet, damballah or the magical snake holding the two sides together where heaven meets earth.
Join Graves for an engaging free Artist Talk moderated by the amazing Brian Keith Thomas, Friday, Jan. 17, 7-9 p.m., at Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St., Oakland.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.