Art

Little Gods Everywhere: Rachel Cargle and Danny Dunson on Black Art and Existence

On the heels of the opening of curator Danny Dunson’s latest show “Homecoming: The Aesthetic of The Cool” at the 1957 Gallery in Accra, Ghana, writer Rachel Elizabeth Cargle leans in to hear how Dunson approaches his work with dynamic intention, and how wellness, rest and curiosity are crucial parts of the landscape of Black art today.

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle

Danny Dunson in his Chicago home featuring the art of Patrick Eugene_ Kept Awake_ 2021_Acrylic on canvas_60 x72in_Courtesy of the artist and Legacy Brothers LLC _Photograhed by Bailey Ellis
Danny Dunson in his Chicago home featuring the art of Patrick Eugene, "Kept Awake," 2021. Courtesy the artist and Legacy Brothers LLC. Photography by Bailey Ellis.

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle: For those who are new to your work, I’m interested to hear you talk about how you got into the art world and how you define yourself as a member of the art community.

Danny Dunson: I studied art from a very early age without even knowing it. At that time, “research of art” meant thumbing through books, looking at pictures and learning artists’ names. Art was always my first love. When you see something you like as a child you immediately try to mimic it so I had an artistic talent. My mother is very artistic. My father was also visually and musically artistic so they very much supported me going into the visual arts. I would receive painting and drawing kits for Christmas. I started going into fashion design and I went to a magnet school for the Visual and Performing Arts in Gary, Indiana where I’m from. That’s when my artistry really took on a serious tone. From there, I went to a couple of universities in Chicago and eventually graduated from the University of Illinois, Chicago with a degree in Art History.

Eventually, I succumbed to the idea that I’ve always been interested in the lives of artists: how they operate—the mind of an artist—the objects that they create and how those two things come together. They’re actually at times autonomous of each other—the object from the artist. So I was interested in how those things are always in conversation. Later came my interest in the bigger conversations on racism, history, society, capitalism, feminism—all of these big themes so often show up through art objects.

Art history presented itself as proof of God’s existence. I always thought if you wanted to see the God in someone, look at what they create. Do they create love? Do they create peace? That’s where God is.

REC: So with that definition that you just gave me, of an artist being a reflection of God,  what role do you see yourself playing in this? Are you essentially a preacher—curating sermons, cultivating churches of art? Let’s talk through all of your hyphenate titles and how they show up. 

DD: That’s so funny that you say the term preacher as my father was a pastor. I do think I evangelize in a certain way. Discussing the history of art is another way to filter our own histories. I’m an art historian and a writer. I write specifically about parts of the Black Atlantic: art on the continent as well as the diaspora and all of those in-between spaces that we still exist in. I stand as this kind of intermediary between the continent and the diaspora, actively speaking against lies that people of color and Black people have been told about Indigenous spaces as well as the lies that Indigenous people have been told about the utopian idea that “the grass is always greener” in the Western world. I argue that stigma has to collapse for both of us. I take on early cultures that our people were stripped away from on the continent and introduce relativity so that we can realize that these borders and separation aren’t real. We are one people that have been dispersed and taken on different characteristics. It is what we gained in that Indigenous space that has allowed us to survive through today. I represent that physically, historically through my own lineage and academically through the things that I research, always bridging the gaps between the art of the continents, such as intricate fabric making and architecture, to what basically cultivated Modern art in the Western world and in the sphere of Blackness globally, particularly within African-American art of the 1920s.

The biggest goal for me being an art historian, curator, writer and art advisor is to promote and demythisize any type of unbelief towards Black people’s humanity.

Two paintings by Amoako Boafo on view at Gallery 1957, curated by Danny Dunson.

REC: I know that you have the insight to the ways that particularly for Black Americans, the art world seems so distant and inaccessible even though it’s so rooted in our existence. What does the art world look like for, lets say, the young Black person in the Midwest who might be reading this and finding a lot of fulfillment from the possibilities of art being a real part of their lives and careers, those who might only see fine art at a museum, curated by white people, or only enjoyed by someone in another socioeconomic class? 

DD: In that, there is really a bigger statement around autonomy. When I went to art school as an art historian I created my own path there. I studied abroad, not in Rome as was suggested, but in Ghana. I then took foreign language living six months in Morocco. I was learning Arabic and Twi and those are not traditional Western art historical languages. It’s usually French, German or Italian but I realized that I had the right to choose how I wanted to build myself.

I think the bigger question is: How can young people answer the questions that they have and create what they want to see? Often that’s outside of trying to conquer this institutional space. It’s not trying to buy a seat at the table, it’s literally about creating your own. It’s also not about being separatist because I have found help and colleagues and friends and families of all walks of life of different races—we share the same goals. I would encourage anyone who’s interested in the art world to not be concerned about what you see and don’t see. If you are afraid about being the only one in the room, I think you have a long road ahead of you. If you become the only one in the room and stay the only one in the room, I think there is a  problem because your job is to create spaces for other people, not to be a mascot that fills a diversity quotient. I think there’s a lot of self-responsibility.

REC: As your friend I want to say thank you so much for the ways that you reimagine the art world. A big part of my own self-learning has been in witnessing so many possibility models, a term from actress Laverne Cox that refers to people who we see and say, “this person is reflecting a version of the life that I want to live. I now know this is possible and I think it’s worth exploring.”You do this in a lot of ways for so many people. I think that is such a perfect space to talk about Legacy Brothers Lab. In regards to your parents incubating you and your talents, you spoke about mimicking things we value and with Legacy Brother Lab you truly are mimicking the ways that your parents showed up for you. I think that’s really special.

DD: Legacy Brothers really took on legs in the beginning of 2020 when time stood still for everyone around the world. During that time, I wasn’t flying off to see exhibitions or working with galleries as all of my upcoming shows had been postponed indefinitely. I found myself with a lot of time and I started going through my DMs. I got messages from artists from all over the world. I started to converse with one particular artist from Nigeria. He is an incredible Surrealist. I took a virtual studio visit to look at and discuss his work. Long story short, he became the first official member of the Legacy Brother’s Lab, a virtual incubator which serves as a residency, where artists seek mentorship and financial and academic support. I figured since I had academic training as an art historian and even as an artist I knew enough to give them a little bit more of a foundation. I don’t think academic learning is  the enemy, sometimes just access to it is.

Before I knew it, I had seven artists from different places around the world: Brazil, Nigeria, Atlanta, Haiti and a photographer from Senegal. This cohort started to meet and have master classes where we all were taking on master knowledge. Not that I’m the master, but we were each trying to master ways in which art can improve. The biggest question I had for them was how do you want to add to the existing conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years? That made them think and they really began to conceptualize their work. They all have fantastic self-taught technical skills, but conceptually, they really grew.

Installation view of “Homecoming: The Aesthetic of the Cool,” curated by Danny Dunson.

From there, I decided to give each artist a grant and together, we were thinking of ways to introduce them into the high art world.I took them under my wing and we premiered their work in Ghana in December at Gallery 1957 in a group show called “Collective Reflection.” It was a bridge of African diasporic artists reflecting during the COVID-19 pandemic and they created portraits and figurative work grappling with death and their safety as Black people in the world. They studied the resistance of African American formerly enslaved people and converging West African history. They took on that project of thinking of themselves truly as human beings, even though there’s this master narrative that wants to write Black people out.

My biggest accomplishment was that the artists were signed with a world-renowned gallery and are going to be premiering works. Another artist was recently accepted to the Art Institute of Chicago. It just goes to show how collectively working to help young minds reach a goal that they would not have been able to individually is so exciting.

REC: We happened to be in Accra at the same time and the ancestors blessed me and I was able to come see your show “Homecoming: The Aesthetic of The Cool.” It was an absolutely dynamic experience—not only the art that was on the walls, but the people who came, the conversations that were being had, the celebration of the artist! I mean it was just as much of a community celebration as it was an individual moment for the artists. I’d love to hear how that title and subtitle were born. 

DD: Well, the subtitle came first actually. There is a book entitled The Aesthetic of the Cool by Robert Harris Thompson. He is a critical thinker, professor and amazing writer who also wrote Flash of the Spirit, a foundational book that every art historian should read especially those who are interested in the art of the Black diaspora of the Black Atlantic. He writes about how cultures like Ga culture of Ghana or Yuroba culture in Nigeria informed the Hollywood idea of 1950s and 60s coolness, that James Dean image. He likened it to rituals and cultural activities that happened in West Africa and how these people created an aesthetic. The book deals with the tension between vanity and the sacred, between active engagement and being detached. In the space between those binaries is where the work of these artists lies for me.

All of them attended the same school, GHANATTA College of Art and Design, and they are all friends. It really made sense then to call it a homecoming because they all worked outside of their home country—one works in Austria, others in the US, another in Germany—but they came home to show for the first time together and they are among the largest stars in the contemporary art world in Ghana.

Installation view of “Homecoming: The Aesthetic of the Cool,” curated by Danny Dunson.

REC: One thing that I’ve heard you say is that you “research humanity through the field of the art object.” In curating this show, what came up about humanity?. 

DD: I wanted to thread together how these artists are centering Blackness in a way that promotes the interiority of the mind. Amoako Boafo, Kwesi Botchway and Otis Quaicoe center humanity within the people in their paintings. Race is the least significant part of the pieces. The collection asks: what is the spirit of us? Their art highlights our humanity and invites a central narrative of “I am human first.”

REC: All of the works on display show Black people at ease. There was no surviving. There was no striving. There was no particular labor visible.

DD: It’s in small ways that they’re countering those old narratives and that becomes a really big statement. It was not as innocent as it looks; it’s not as sweet as you might assume. I find them quite charged and very emotional. It’s heartbreaking that just witnessing Black existence in rest would make us emotional—this, too, is part of the issue.

REC: It felt like I was peeking into a sacred sanctuary. The actual subject of the painting became an entire representation of all the joy and luxury that we deserve. To witness it was very, very special. What’s on the horizon for you?

DD: Legacy Brothers is moving forward as an art consultancy where we do write, curate, art advise and represent artists who are not yet with a major gallery. Through the Legacy Brothers Lab, every artist receives a grant to travel and one of their projects is to do a salon show.

Right now, those exhibits happen in my home in Chicago and virtually to make them COVID-compliant and simply more accessible. We’re looking forward to our first show later this month, which is by Patrick Eugene, a Haitian-American artist based in Atlanta, but born and raised in Brooklyn. He’s putting out a series of works that discuss the creative self, looking at African American artists from the 1920s to the 1970s and how they image themselves.

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