Two artists with footprints in the East Bay, and featured or included in separate exhibits at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, cast their dragnets into bygone eras of art history, expose their catch to illuminating and sometimes eviscerating sensibilities, and reach unique, contemporary cultural expression and commentary.
The artwork of Louisiana-born Rashaad Newsome is generated out of his East Coast/West Coast home bases in Brooklyn and Oakland and defies easy framing. It includes sculpture, collage, film, software engineering, AI, music, photography, interactive community workshops, commissioned art partnership performances and more. Drawn from a series and created in 2019, his collage, “The Art of Immortality 2,” is included in MoAD’s “Elegies: Still Lifes in Contemporary Art.”
Huffman, who lives and grew up primarily in Berkeley, and maintains a studio in Oakland, studied at the New York Studio School and Oakland’s California College of the Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts). The museum’s solo exhibition of his work, “Terra Incognita,” brings forth a spectrum of paintings and sculptures. It showcases his “Traumanaut” series, but also includes other 2- and 3-D works Huffman says (in a phone interview) are seminal and indicative of pursuits he has long practiced.
In the salon-style exhibit gallery dedicated to Huffman’s artwork, are large, medium and small-scale pieces, such as the painting “Katrina,” work from the “Sideshow” series, “Yankee Trash,” basketball-themed “Red and Blue,” and a number of works titled “Untitled,” or “Untitled Small Works.” Confronting visitors and serving as a large-scale, 8×12-foot introduction as they enter the exhibit, is “TraumaEve.” “It has a lot of stuff going on, with a war scene between robots, although it’s not chaotic or radical,” he says. “The Eve in the art is the Aunt Jemima concept brought into the future. To be honest, another painting people may have seen, ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima’ by Betye Saar, is the more revolutionary stance on Aunt Jemima, and this is my take.”
Huffman in media coverage is often said to draw inspiration from cartoons, the poetry and paradox of Black athletes and basketball, and themes pertaining to racism and Black identity emanating from the 1950’s and ‘60s Black Power movement. While the latter associations are true, he jumps at an offer to clarify and clear up misperceptions relating to cartoons. Sourcing and practicing artistic techniques and traditions from Japanese animation are what truly lay the groundwork for his futuristic “Traumanaut” visions. “Cartoons are frivolous American things, and Japanese animation’s super robot concept is much older. It’s a misconception that I’ve written about my work so many times. Cartoons don’t give me ideas the way Japanese animation does, with its narratives and phenomenal line work.”
Traditional Chinese paintings that feature highly sophisticated renderings on silk in mostly vertical compositions show people engaged in archery, riding on horses or other everyday actions of centuries-ago time periods. He says artwork from the earliest era of classical Chinese painting has a cinematic feel and is an influence equal to the art of Japanese animation in his work.
“‘Sideshow’ is a 10-foot piece about Oakland sideshows—those events where people make amazing abstract tire burn marks on the pavement. It shows abstract storytelling (with compositional approach) similar to Chinese art that also has representational figures. For the series, ‘Sideshow,’ I wanted to somehow recognize sideshow history because the practice doesn’t get permission and recognition like Hot Rod culture did. It had the potential to spawn, but even with cars being central to people’s consciousness, it hasn’t. Sideshows are illegal and are street action that happens not just here, but in Africa and other places all over the world. That piece (‘Sideshow’) shows the connection of Oakland to the rest of the world.”
If human connectivity to distant places is central to Huffman’s work, it’s little wonder the “Traumanaut” series occupies the bulk of the exhibition. The Black astronauts depicted in surreal landscapes he says spring from his imagination and leave him waiting for the rest of the world—and technology—to catch up. “My Traumanauts go on journeys that are both physical and psychological. With Elon Musk and others sending people like college professors and William Shatner into space recently, they haven’t done anything exotic. If we get someone to Mars, that will be interesting, but it will look like the ‘50s. Our imagination has always had a long cast; now it’s the technology that needs to catch up. We dreamt of it, but the physics holds it all back.”
Developments in astronomy, he says, hold his current interest. “They’re flying new telescopes out to look at things we’ve never seen before.” Other territory that has piqued his curiosity and to which exploratory art-making relates, inevitably, is the coronavirus. Even with Covid-19, it’s the galaxy of the pandemic more than any one angle or social statement that captures his imagination. “I do have two virus bomb paintings in the show,” he admits. “The idea of virus is the kernel that holds abstract interest for me.”
Asked if “Terra Incognita” presents a unique opportunity to view artwork created at separate times as a whole entity and therefore gain unusual, substantive perspectives, he says, not really. “It shows work that should have gotten recognition separately and earlier in a way that would make a difference. I’d say the show is unique in that it’s a space narrative; it’s like geology, a thing that happens in time. When I was making the ‘Traumanaut’ work, African American artwork wasn’t getting the attention it’s getting now. My audience is bigger because people are looking at Black protagonists in a global way. The whole world is thinking about space; we’re feeling a need to go there. There’s potential decimation of our culture right now, and that spawns narratives of space. We’ve gone internal due to the pandemic, but gone internal in ways that make us look for real space and to connect with something beyond our houses.”
Huffman has strong, mixed reactions to the spotlight shining on artists who are people of color, after decades of neglect or disinterest. “The ‘Katrina’ piece was in a sense my first political narrative. I made it when Katrina was still kind of going on. For me, that signified racist perspectives on Black people; all of them put in a dome and George Bush’s wife saying they were ‘doing much better’ in the dome. Meanwhile, Black people were putting flags on roofs, declaring Black people are a part of America and important too. It was like the 1950’s hoses were being turned on people again. Ever since the eruption of slavery, it has been daunting. We can’t treat Black people like news. We have to take time, invest, pay attention. I’ve been working along those lines, and now everybody else is starting to pay attention to what I’ve been doing. I’ve done lynching paintings with the astronauts; I do abstract paintings that follow the same track, so it’s business as usual. Artists are taking the lead. I’m not new to this Afro-futurism game; I’ve been doing it from way back.”
Newsome, in his distinctive way, “takes the lead” by raising questions about how art is viewed and suggests the voices of Black people spoken through artistic allegories in his and other artists’ work are “unsilenceable.” In comments from an email interview edited only for brevity, he says, “Some of the earliest examples of still life were paintings of flowers by Netherlandish Renaissance painters. These still-life paintings included themes of Vanitas, a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. My photographic collages have always been in conversation with these themes, and as a way to communicate that formally, I started to create queered replicas of Dutch frames for them. ‘The Art of Immortality’ series is informed by this theorization. They are attempts to do still life formally, although I would argue that my collages have always been in deep conversation with still life. They are images made from several printed images composed on a flat surface. One could photograph the collage on my work table before it is framed, and it could be read as a still life. When I see reproductions of my works online, I see them as the photographically rendered still lives of the compositions in my studio. The framing of the works complicates that reading, as it centers on the image that was rendered from the material, rather than an image of the material.”
Newsome suggests the act of looking at artwork in those two ways in general and specifically at the “Immortality” series raises questions about traditional prints, or “flat” works; photography viewed as craftsmanship rather than mere record-making; ephemerality, and flowers in still life paintings memorializing death (memento mori). The flowers in the collage on paper work at MoAD are not actual flowers, but “images of jewelry depicting flowers, frozen in time, challenging their intended allegory of time,” says Newsome. “The piece at that point fails to communicate the certainty of death effectively, or does it? This collapse of the intended allegory is intentional; it is, in fact, an allegory for the ways in which art history fails us, in regard to the art historical erasure of the true origins of movements like Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, all of which owe a debt to African Art, for instance.” He says the screaming mouths positioned within the buds of the flowers can be viewed as an allegory for the unstoppable voices of Black people who “continue to destabilize the status quo and redistribute material forms of power.”
During the worst of the pandemic and now, Newsome’s focus on producing artwork that celebrates Black contributions to the art canon and honors Black artists’ role in creating innovative forms of culture and media has been affirmed. His lived experience adds nuance. “One thing that has come much more into focus through working this way is the importance of care. I would say the new work hones in on that.”
A Being’s Decolonization workshop held in February 2022 that Newsome refers to as a “social experiment” and was part of his “Assembly” exhibit featuring the gender nonconforming AI child Being, offered surprising insights to him. Participants formed two-person breakout groups to discuss bell hooks’s theory of capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist and patriarchal systems and how those systems of domination show up in their lives. Charged with coming up with one action step they could take to liberate themselves, Newsome says, “I was honestly thinking that there would be a lot of conflict as people from totally different experiences were being asked to speak about things that well, quite frankly, they tend to avoid out of fear of saying the wrong thing. I was pleasantly surprised at how vulnerable people were with Being and one another. Witnessing those interactions gave me a bit of hope for humans.”
Reflecting on the aesthetics of care and kindness viewed as through lines that unite his wide-ranging body of work, Newsome says, “I have always tried to incorporate a sensory ethical practice of how to be attentive, patient, listen, respond and rethink my own attitudes about difference and exclusion, whether it be with materials in my work and what they communicate, or people in my work and what they communicate. I imagine it will always be a part of my process because if I look deep, it is rooted in love, love for one’s self and the people (my art) is in communication with.”