If you’re expecting a subtle, tasteful discussion of social justice issues in contemporary American culture, then Colin Quashie is not the artist for you. But if you are moved by engaged visual criticism and see its potential to have an immediate impact on viewers then you’ll love Quashie’s unflinching examination of the lingering effects of racism in contemporary American culture.
The artist uses humor and satire, mixing wit and irony, to convey a message that needs to be seen. The recent events in Florida make it painfully obvious that the conversation about race needs to continue.
Quashie doesn’t exhibit his work that often, but over the last eighteen months there have been several opportunities for viewers to participate in that dialog, two in Columbia and one in Charleston. Subjective Perceptions, the first solo exhibition of Quashie’s work in Columbia was on view at Benedict’s Ponder Fine Arts Gallery in the fall of 2010, and the artist was selected for 701 Center for Contemporary Art’s first Biennial this past fall.
Just this past April he had a major solo show, “Plantation (plan-ta-shun)” at Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston. The title of the exhibition gives a clue that while Quashie lives in Charleston, he does not in any way fit the stereotype of the “Charleston artist”. In fact, turning that stereotype on its head is one of his most effective strategies.
Born in London in 1963 and raised in the West Indies, Quashie immigrated to the US with his parents at age six and grew up in Florida. He attended college for a couple of years, but left to join the Navy working on submarines. After his discharge in 1987 he began actively pursuing his art career.
Quashie’s demanding content challenges cultural gatekeepers, sometimes leading to censorship. The first instance back in 1995 devastated the artist, and he stopped making art for two years. In a move that ultimately served to sharpen his commentary, he moved to the West Coast and started writing comedy for Mad-TV. His hiatus from art making was short-lived, and although he continues writing for the film and television industry, Quashie has been an active part of the state cultural scene ever since.
The artist pulls imagery from wide variety of sources that range from contemporary pop culture to 19th century historical photographs. He packages these images in familiar formats, ones that use both the visual and verbal language of the media to address issues of race, gender and social equality, or rather, inequality. Real estate advertisements, product and package designs, billboards and coloring books become the framework for his witty and satirical dissection of our lingering cultural stereotypes.
His seductive use of the familiar makes his work very accessible. The viewer is lured in by images associated with comfort, ease and even style that are then revealed to be cultural inconsistencies that create a sense of unease and discomfort. Quashie’s ability to manipulate the allure of the familiar is exactly what makes his work so challenging to both the average viewer and art insiders as well.
Quashie has used the metaphor of a children’s coloring book many times and the most recent version, Plantation Coloring and Activity Book, uses the commonplace motif to present images that appear neutral and naïve until a closer examination reveals images of brutality and horror. The jarring quality of the combination only adds to the power of the images.
The cover shows a smiling Aunt Jemima, her face wreathed in a pattern of cotton bolls. But inside are “activities” like “Connect the Dots” where the tag line reads, “Help Master whip the uppity slave and show him who’s boss!” The dots connect to form scar lines on the back of the simplified outline of an African-American man. The image is derived from a mid-19th century photograph – which appears in “Plantation Digest” – now in the collection of the Library of Congress.
“Plantation Digest” is a series of large acrylic and gel transfers on board, fairly dripping with bitingly dark satire. Using the format and slick presentation of the magazine and advertising world, Quashie reconfigures a series of images pulled from contemporary media with 19th century period images and text to point out the continuing systems of gateways and gatekeepers, just as powerful now as 200 years ago.
The plantation gates on the “Cover” served to mark a boundary, the outer limit beyond which the most of the inhabitants were not allowed to pass. Similar gates are still used, marking boundaries that are just as clearly defined by race as before. With the headlines, Quashie makes a clear connection between the overt racism of the 19th century and the covert racism that remains in the 21st. The goal of plantation management was to maintain a quiet, compliant workforce. His choice of contemporary images and text points to the degree to which that is still true.
Colin Quashie speaks openly about the two ton elephant in the living room of American culture, pulling it from the corner and placing it squarely in front of the TV where we all have to look at it and acknowledge its presence. What happens from there is up to the rest of us.