Young Artists 2023 Art

S*an D. Henry-Smith Is on a Mission To Destroy the Myth of the Artist As Singular Genius


“The speaker of this poem is in a tizzy in a huffy & a 1/2, she’s feeling / down on her luck,” reads the first line of “earworm,” a poem from 2019. “I am her, I would do anything for her / survival,” it continues, setting up the catchy, propulsive pace the following lines will follow. The verses swerve from subject to object, destabilizing the “I” as a sovereign entity, liquefying into a rhythmic empathy that feels urgent, alive.

The sculptor of those words, S*an D. Henry-Smith, is a quiet revolutionary. Through their collaborative, multi-disciplinary practice, the 31-year-old is out to destroy the myth of the artist as an individual genius. Like the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba once said, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” Henry-Smith embodies this by using art to underline our interdependence.

In 2019, they published a cookbook in collaboration with poet Imani Elizabeth Jackson, under the moniker mouthfeel. Consider the Tongue combines photography and poetry, featuring historically Black recipes, like gumbo and oyster stew. They chose the format of the cookbook to explore food’s unique ability to bring people together. “A lot of the first oyster bars in New York were owned by recently freed slaves,” they explain. “It’s where abolitionists would meet.”


For years, Henry-Smith has refined the art of hanging out. “Portrait-making is an element of conversation,” they say, describing their snapshots of friends in Lunar New Year, a short film from 2021 for 47 Canal. In front of the camera, poet Slant Rhyme and scholar Ryan Clarke pose with relaxed intimacy. Both are ravers. “The dance floor is an extension of our study,” reasons Henry-Smith.

Taking after Amiri Baraka’s poetry on John Coltrane, Henry-Smith has also looked to echo the music of their contemporaries, like the noise musician Dreamcrusher, who inspired Henry-Smith’s poem “Another Country.” This act of annotation has culminated in performances with co-conspirators like the techno DJ Shyboi, with whom Henry-Smith is currently working on a collaboration, titled what mosses!, in conjunction with L’Rain and Justin Allen. Another musical project—a solo album under the name astringency principle of the looking drum—occupies a slice of the life they split between New York and Amsterdam.


If kinship is Henry-Smith’s medium, the rapture of a well-accompanied life is their subject. Across their practice, the artist presents people not in collective struggle, per se, but in shared joy: at raves, dinners, poetry readings. In Henry-Smith’s hands, these practices become what they call “technologies of togetherness.”

“Even when I’m working alone,” they assert, “I’m not actually.”

For more about CULTURED's 2023 Young Artists, read our features with Theresa ChromatiGiangiacomo Rossetti, and Emma Stern.