The Alchemists: Co-Curated by Seph Rodney & Donovan Johnson
“This is the only real concern of the artist: to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
— James Baldwin
How is blackness — as a set of ideas, as ways of being, as inherited legacies — transformed in an artist's practice today? This question is the heart of our thinking around this exhibition because it is an urgent one ; at a time when the commodification and dilution of blackness into mainstream culture is escalating.
Leaning on lessons gleaned from cinema, literature, music, and performance, this show peruses the influence of ideologies concerning what it means to be Black, looking through the lens of artistic practice to gaze perceptively on material culture, resistance strategies, rituals of commemoration, forms of play, speculative fantasies, and all else that lives in the house of blackness.
Today, Black culture is increasingly associated with taste making and trendsetting, cultivating the notion of "black cool", and thus reformulating what has been an undervalued and ignored history, set of traditions, and a collective identity. As it stands, there is almost no creative field where Black source material — and by extension, the ideas and experiences that undergird this material — have not found their way to influencing that field. Blackness impacts global popular culture.
Yet, in our exuberant and sometimes uncritical participation in these widespread, attenuated forms of blackness, we risk a diminished comprehension of all that blackness can be and often is. “If blackness is separated from this aesthetic of cool that comes out of our culture... we lose the understanding of how much we are actually giving to this world," wrote Rebecca Walker in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, arguing that our intricately tangled heritage, is being simplified (and perhaps even romanticized) into reductive accounts.
How does an artist transform matter and transcend the ordinary? The Alchemists offers artists who construct unique forms rooted in Black experience and ancestral legacy to demonstrate that this magic can indeed be done. Featuring works across a wide range of mediums, including painting, drawing, video, collage, assemblage, and installation, this exhibition aims to function as a critical platform for the manifestation of Black folks thinking their way through blackness, and informally documenting Black material and ideological culture.
Johnson Lowe Gallery has long been interested in the influence of source materials and the creative process of constructing, reimagining, appropriating, and rendering such materials, both natural and artificial, into unanticipated forms. In physics, the term transmutation refers to the conversion of one element into another. Though transmutation can also refer to radioactive decay, ancient Alchemists continuously aimed to create precious metals, or some ideal of a universal elixir, in their quests for wealth, longevity, and immortality. But they never had the source material of blackness. We do.