Cosmic Blackness: Afrosurreal artist Christopher Burch unveils a mural meant to inspire, educate and provoke a love for Black beauty

0
TRUTH-TELLER ‘I am a storyteller, and I’m a maker of worlds of realms. I don’t particularly say that I’m an artist anymore,’ Burch said. (Photo by Donna Burch)

Full disclosure: Christopher Burch is my brother, comrade, friend and inspiration. We’ve known each other for more than a handful of years, and still, every time we speak, I find even more ways we’re connected.

Burch’s work is infused with the literary Black radical tradition and touches of what Ishmael Reed dubbed a Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic, tapping into folklore and folk-ways as guiding principles, and Afrosurrealism, which addresses current concerns, and questions the status quo around issues of identity, spirituality and social justice. 

This week, Burch unveiled a large mural in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, and like everything he’s done up to this point, there’s more to the piece than meets the eye.

“The piece is permanent. It’s a seven-story mural overlooking the Tenderloin; this huge, cosmic Black person,” he said.  “It was brought to me by Darryl Smith. He reached out to me and said he wanted to give me a big wall in the city and gave me the artistic freedom to create what I wanted to create. It’s backed by the Someland Foundation.

“The title of the piece is Jupiter Redding, returned endowed with everything that this world denied them. I approached this project from the deep need to question societal notions within the value of Blackness. My practice includes the public space, because it is the most influential space to confront negative narratives about my being. I am concerned with generating images so poetic and true to my experiences that it suspends the viewer’s disbelief in the beauty of Blackness.”

All of Burch’s work deserves close reading, because of his multi-layered approach to his subjects. Even with the impressive scale of and skill of his current project, the scope of his work calls for the viewer to do more than simply observe it. There is a pedagogical element that insists itself in the work, though in subtle and non-intrusive ways.

“The original ideas came at the intersection between Rumi and Sun Ra,” he said. “I was reading Rumi really heavily at one point, and came to this quote where he says, ‘You are the universe in ecstatic motion,” and that led me to the idea of cosmic Black people, or Black people are the living embodiment of the universe. This piece is a Black person as the universe, but from the position of the universe being like a sitter in a portrait. It’s the silhouette form of a Black person, but inside you see the cosmos.

“The relationship it has to Sun Ra is because I did a huge mural of him in Hayes Valley, and his quote, ‘If you’re not a myth whose reality are you?’ really sat potently in me. The title speaks to ‘Jupiter Redding,’ Jupiter being the planet that Sun Ra is from and representing that celestial body to expand on aspects of Sun Ra’s foundation, but within my own interpretation and within my own experiences.”

Among the many unique approaches to the untapped source materials—from the works of Nina Simone to the trickster figures of Brer Rabbit and Anansi The Spider, or Sun Ra and Rumi—Burch seeks to do more than convey an image.  As his work has evolved, so has his definition of himself as the work informs him.

“I am a storyteller, and I’m a maker of worlds of realms. I don’t particularly say that I’m an artist anymore. I’m more of a maker,”  he said.  “I’m a craftsperson, and I try to fill into what it is that I experienced on this planet and generate ideas coming from that standpoint in order to give people a different perspective, because so many times we’re just hit with so many negative ideas of ourselves. I want to do it in a manner where the poetic component about the pieces are at the forefront. I never want it to be heavy handed. I want to operate on as many nuanced levels as possible. My practice is more akin to being a trickster.  I’m seeking to communicate, but I’m also seeking to keep the mind moving when you encounter my work. It’s never just one thing. It’s never just two things. It’s the conflation of all these experiences, historical present and even future imagining. I’m trying to condense that into one moment.”

Burch splits his time between St. Louis, where he also has a studio, several murals and even created a hip-hop album is his spare time, and the Bay Area, where he has worked with galleries like The Luggage Store and former White Walls Gallery in San Francisco, and several arts collectives in Oakland. As a bi-coastal artist, he still places his heart in his hometown, even if his mind is on the West Coast.

“I was born and raised in St. Louis, and I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. St. Louis is really heavy to me, because I believe it’s one of the heartbeats or main arteries of Black life in America. I look at the Mississippi River as a really influential and powerful form of how I remember things,” he said. “I grew up in University City and graduated in 1998, and I’m very much a part of St. Louis. My father is three generations deep there, and I’ve got family all over. It inspired me, because it’s a place where there is the predominance of Black culture. I saw a lot of different aspects of Black culture. I learned there just wasn’t one aspect of it. I got to see people from the bottom to the top doing things, and I was motivated with an appreciation for sustaining a culture that was Black.

“Growing up in St. Louis, I didn’t know that was just home,” he added. “My mom is a very religious person. My uncle’s a preacher. My grandfather was a deacon. My grandmother’s a Deaconess. I grew up pretty heavy in the Baptist church. I think that my first really surreal experiences growing up came from existing in the church and seeing the elders catch the Holy Ghost. That was my first time really gripping with the idea of spirit possession. I like this idea of there’s another world on top of this one, or there’s another world beyond this one, and that you can have a direct connection to that realm. Me and my brother would be sitting in the pew, and I’d see my mom and everybody in the church speaking in tongues, and I’d just be floored by this. This level of practice. This level of transcending their experiences in a collective manner and not really understanding it, but feeling into its power, and not even knowing that this was a release, but intuitively knowing it at the same time.

“In a lot of ways, growing up in St. Louis and within the culture of St. Louis established a lot of my artistic practice from the standpoint of being an artist. These are elements that have sustained Black people for generations. These are practices of survival. These are practices of tapping into something greater than this world.”

A graduate of San Francisco Art Institute, Burch’s paintings, sculpture and art objects are rooted in social change, a mission he fully adopted after graduating in 2006.

“I really loved the openness of the Bay Area,” he said. “I loved the fact that it really felt untamed in a lot of ways. St. Louis is a place that still deals with a lot of repression within and without the culture. Out here, it’s more of a confrontation. I loved how people expressed that and how open people were and the different practices that I saw. So, I stayed, but I still wanted to stay connected to my roots. I made a way to make it work, where I can travel back and forth and still be connected to St. Louis and still be connected to the Bay in an authentic manner, because there’s this beauty in both places. That’s a big part of my practice, too: Staying connected to what sustains my own relationship to the world around me.

“The history of the Bay Area is a history of a Black-liberation culture that started here and informed the world—that’s the cornerstone, but then there’s also a sincere pushback against institutional power out here. People are challenging the status quo and looking at other possibilities in a smart and caring manner. Representation is important, and these spaces need to be opened up to the plethora of voices. I really do appreciate how people go at that out here.”

One could call Christoper Burch a storyteller, an Afrosurrealist trickster, an incredibly skilled painter and conceptual artist, and would still miss who he actually is, or comprehend the depths and scope of his works. He moves in silent and subtle ways, with a purpose and a vision rooted in his origins, ever mindful of unseen forces that have attempted to suppress, repress and denigrate Black cultural production since this country’s founding. Black artists must be ever mindful of this, and Burch is no exception.

“Growing up, my grandpa would call it being ‘country dumb.’ You don’t ever show your hand, or what cards you’re holding, because if people know how powerful you actually are, that generates fear, and that fear then becomes dangerous,” Burch said. “So there’s this level of invisibility we must utilize just beneath the surface and operate within in order to not only survive, but to give ourselves enough space to build what it is that we want to build. Once people see what we’re doing, that fear can become uncontrollable and the dreams of a people can be destroyed.”