By Jennifer Watson
Artist Ann “Sole Sister” Johnson wants to be mother one day, but she’s afraid to adopt a son. Too many African American mothers are losing their boys tragically at the hands of police brutality, she said. The epidemic tires her. So she went to her studio with aviator-style glasses and transferred harrowing images on each lens: the left one bears a lamenting mother while the right reflects her deceased son. But the plastic case housing the glasses — ironically resembling a coffin — and the silhouette beneath them leave the most memorable imprint.
The piece, justifiably named It just keeps happening, is an example of her latest obsession with reflective prints showcased at Redefining Print: Contemporary Prints from Women of the African Diaspora, on exhibit at the Community Artists’ Collective until August 28.
Call Johnson a rebel artist with a purpose. When she’s not busy in the studio painting with her feet, she’s engaged with what the world of printmaking will look like eventually. In her mind’s eye, tomorrow’s print makers will encourage more collaboration, be less homogeneous and take greater risks experimenting with surfaces alternative to paper.
“I refuse to print on paper,” Johnson said. “I print on everything: feathers, leaves, mirrors – I’m way out the box.”
Considering less than a handful of black artists make up the roster of PrintMatters Houston, of which Johnson is a founding member, she has been eagerly pursuing her goal to include different voices in the arena. For the 2015 PrintHouston summer-long celebration, established by PrintMatters, she welcomed local and internationally recognized African American female artists to share their stories with her.
“I wanted the prints to be as eclectic as possible,” she said. “I wanted to try to put a show together that would redefine traditional printmaking.”
Redefining Print is a continuing conversation about how the world chooses to see women of color and their experiences, which can be perceived with precision or awfully distorted depending on the lens used. The first dialogue began in 2011 when Johnson, Rabéa Ballin, Delita Martin and Lovie Olivia debuted as a collective with their printmaking exhibition ROUX, at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. This body of work later gave rise to a series of PrintHouston shows including STIR, Bās, SUGA, and this summer’s COAL scheduled at University Museum at Texas Southern University in August.
“I call them my ROUX sisters,” Johnson said.
For this round of PrintHouston, Johnson curated fresh and seasoned perspectives, made up of her ROUX sisters and out-of-state artists Sukenya Best, Jessica Gatlin, Abigail Lucien and Althea Murphy-Price. The result is a delectable feast of silkscreens, monotypes, reliefs, lithographs, intaglio and transfer prints that live up to her vision.
Martin’s single entry, Untitled, is a relief composed of conte, wood and metal featuring a striking woman’s portrait over a frying skillet, inspired by the stories Martin’s grandmother told as she pieced together fabrics for quilting. Having enjoyed Martin’s mastery in printmaking in previous exhibits, I thought her story remained unfinished since this was her only piece, yet Untitled anchors the room as a quintessential example of the evolution of print.
Ballin’s collection of #sixwordstories explained in six chapters teaches a rarely discussed subject left purposely out of history books. Using silkscreen, Ballin printed six cream-colored pillows with contemporary bold characters to teach a lesson on plaçage, an institution of “unofficial” arranged marriages that took place in New Orleans during the 1700s.
In #sixwordstories the contrast of a prominent black font against a lighter background could symbolize how free women of color were used to complement their Creole or white American suitors, exchanging sex and companionship for financial security, privilege, and, in some instances, love. A meticulous editor, as Johnson describes her, Ballin’s calculated conciseness recognizes an important chapter of Louisiana’s past that still haunts America, revealed by the explosive online threads about white privilege posted in the recent aftermath of the Rachel Dolezal scandal.
To the right of Ballin’s installation, sit Olivia’s square panel boxes, each treated with plaster and stenciled with words that beckon the viewer to peep inside. In 2012’s STIR, she suspended the boxes from the wall, allowing the viewer to look upwards through the lens, but in Redefining Print, the boxes are perched on pedestals, forcing the viewer to bend slightly and peer into the intricate communities she’s created through digital fresco. The effect this placement creates feels voyeuristic and dramatizes Olivia’s intention to play with tone, light and perception. Olivia perfectly contrasts the spectacle against the spectacular in More Than, a transfer print of three young women twerking before the viewer and villagers emerging in the background.
“This one’s my favorite,” said Olivia, peeping through the box a few times in admiration of the details.
Caribbean, African and Latin dances were the muses and instruments behind Best’s Jamming and Rumbling Existence. At first glance, Jamming looks like an ethereal outburst of yellow and red-orange celestial bodies dancing around the earth, but a second look reveals a pattern of feet zigzagging across a floor.Using dancing feet as her method of printmaking, Best created monotypes on fabric to reinterpret human rhythm, cultural connection and division. The impressions in Rumbling Existence look similar to inkblot, but the toes and arches add a rich texture that couldn’t be achieved with an ordinary utensil.
Adornment and identity are prominent themes in Redefining Print as five of the eight artists make statements about hair. Interestingly, this came together by chance, but the coincidence illustrates how much African American women have influenced or have been influenced by hairstyles. Ballin’s fascination with the history of Circassian beauties, renowned by their astonishing Afros, led her to emboss their portraits on handmade paper; Johnson integrates her Native American and African American heritage by reproducing a stunning vintage comb with feathers, found objects and intaglio; MFA graduate students Lucien and Gatlin make a satirical argument to highlight media’s powerful grasp on standards of beauty for women of color in Nature’s Intent; Gatlin dramatically suspends a silkscreen on canvas, titled Queen Of The Tenderheads, by several feet of braided hair; and Murphy-Price’s hand-printed photo lithographs of weaved hair fabric have viewers doing a double-take as they try to determine if the hair is real or an illusion, replicating the reaction of looking at synthetic hair on a human head.
I spent most of my time in awe of Lucien’s prints. Hello?, 2014 depicts a two-dimensional ghost-like image of a girl talking on the phone, riveted by a telephone cord. The image is so surreal, nostalgia soon overwhelmed me. Long before the takeover of text messaging and social media, I was that girl lost in conversation as my grandmother hung dearly on the receiving end.
Petit reflects a toddler floating in obscurity, composed
with found wallpaper, thread and silkscreen on film. The dots on the child’s dress playfully bounce off the wall.
“She’s mastered the shadow,” Johnson said.
You easily could lose track of time staring at each print trying to understand exactly how the artists defy the boundaries of printmaking. And even with an explanation of a particular process by the artist herself, you still could walk away absolutely bewildered but satisfied with the understanding that the ancient-old technique is only as limited as the imagination.
Redefining Print: Contemporary Prints from Women of the African Diaspora is part of PrintMatters’ PrintHouston series, on exhibition at the Community Artists’ Collective, 4101 San Jacinto, Suite 116, until August 28. For exhibit hours visit thecollective.org.
Bio: Jennifer Watson is native Houstonian in love with the local arts scene. By day she works as an editor and moonlights as an English professor. When the mood strikes she blogs at nthepm.