top of page

Gordon Shadrach

An exploration of the semiotics of clothing, gaze, and black expression.


MAR 03, 2023 | ISSUE 10

From "Trade" by Gordon Shadrach
From "Trade" by Gordon Shadrach
From "Trade" by Gordon Shadrach

In the recent exhibit by Gordon Shadrach—entitled Trade, presented by United Contemporary Gallery—the Toronto-based painter explores the semiotics of clothing and Black masculinity. Shadrach compares the historic attire of African diasporic peoples to present-day basketball jerseys, highlighting the parallels between Black soldiers and the modern athlete. Shadrach also collaborated with artists Karin Jones and Damian Jöel in the November 2021 exhibit History is Rarely Black or White. Like Trade, History combines visual art and fashion to examine colonial history and Black heritage. Both exhibits illuminate the oppression of Black culture, expression, and prosperity.

sM | In Trade, there is a sense of dignity within the attire—where does that come from?

GS — I think it’s not just the attire. I think it’s also the gaze of the sitter. I think I’ve had the opportunity of doing lots of art fairs, where I’ve engaged with lots of art collectors and buyers, and I’'ve interacted with people of all shades. They would say it’s the “gaze of the city,” and they would find it really challenging or really confrontational. When you start looking at the whole history of systemic racism... if a Black man made eye contact with the wrong person, they could be lynched. On the street, there is an underlying sense of fear. I think that’s where a lot of people come from with regards to the Black man’s gaze. So to be having these Black men, in my paintings, looking at you with a very plastic expression... that sense of normalcy, of being gazed upon by a Black man, is dignifying because, for a lot of people, they usually subvert their eyes.

I don’t always want to engage with people on the street, so I look away. I’ve talked to other young Black men and they say their hoodie is actually their way of just blocking out all the visual noise. So I think it’s an adjustment and an appreciation of that directness, which isn’t necessarily threatening, but some people find it so, based on their perception.

sM | What’s the usual reaction to the “placid normal gaze” in your portraits?

GS — What’s been amazing is seeing people come to my exhibits, whether it’s at an art fair or now in a gallery, and seeing them smile. So there’s this comfort that I think comes from, as you said, this sense of dignity. Maybe it’s from the sense of it’s nice to finally see something like this, seeing Black men being presented in a way that celebrates their Blackness, their masculinity, and the ideas around masculinity. In a way that I hope honours them. I see a lot of smiling.

I ask people a lot of questions when I have the opportunity and people really get pulled into the idea of the narratives of my work. I speak to some people who have collected some of my work in the past. They talk about looking at the painting and every day coming up with another story or a new narrative or wondering what’s happening in the painting. That is one of the greatest compliments I’ve gotten. When you live with art you want it to be something people can engage with; so, when I create art like this it has a lot of personal meaning to me.

sM | What is your understanding of how viewers perceive Black men in paintings?

GS — I’ve actually addressed it in a show I did, Visceral, and it was a direct response to the fact that people were looking at paintings of benign expressions without emotion. This idea of defiance, I’ve seen it over and over again used to describe portraits of Black people who happen to look comfortable. Looking comfortable without questioning why they’re there is an act of defiance, right? So I got really upset about it and started thinking about how we are trained as children in the diaspora to hold our fear, and our anger, under the surface because of the risk that it puts us in. So with Visceral, I wanted to depict various emotional states, because I thought if people are going to say that my sitters looked angry or this or that, I might as well do a show on that.

I also did a series of hoodie paintings. They were the first paintings that I did with hoodies, where it was about the face being covered and the emotion suggested by the body language and the colour of the hoodie. So the titles were just “Red”, “Black”, and “White” because I wanted neutrality in the title and everything, and the emotional response to be something that people were reading into it. So the long answer is that I am well aware of the fact that you can’t have a neutral face Black person in a painting because people will often describe them as defiant or angry. You start to realize how much racism there is within this system of interaction.

insta: @gordon_shadrach