by Macenzie Rebelo &
Photography: Courtesy of United Contemporary Gallery
With his new exhibition, Trade visual artist Gordon Shadrach engages his audience in the “placid gaze” of Black men.
“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.”
Dignity is in Season: A Conversation with 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.
What is your understanding of how viewers perceive Black men in paintings?
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.
Find this, and more, in the forthcoming print edition of Issue No.8.
In the meantime, checkout Issue No.7.
Issue No.7 features in-depth interview with artists and arts organizations across 10 cities.