Antonio McAfee

Exhibition Visit

Theme and Variation  at ICA GALLERY, Baltimore, MD

September 2018


This exhibition has elements that are built on artists and events of the past, can you talk briefly about this aspect of the work?

For the past seven years the Du Bois and Calloway’s 1900 Paris World Expo exhibition was kind of the DNA of the show. The source is Exhibition of American Negroes, an exhibition done in 1900 by W.E.B Dubois and Thomas Calloway. The exhibition was a survey of middle class black people in Georgia an economic, legislative, and pictorial survey. There are charts and graphs detailing economic and demographic information like migration patterns from the South to the North, and the Georgia black codes laws pertaining to African Americans from 1732 to 1899. The last component is 300+ black and white studio portraits done by Thomas Eskew. So I’ve been remaking these studio portraits from that original exhibition.

“Theme and Variation” exhibition view

What was important about this solo show in particular was for me to open up the way I made work, my reference points, so in [the show] there is a big influence of music. That’s a big part of my life and that has made it into the work. So there’s D’Angelo, the R&B singer, as Mary Magdalene–I was influenced by his process of recording vocals in the studio with a tarp tent and a whole atmosphere around collecting ambient sounds in the room in which he sings, but also the mood in which he articulated from the recording process to the final product. So I have a piece with a tent in which he records the vocals, and I also have a ten and a half foot portrait of Sly Stone who taught him that process. The pieces are structured as if they are Christian icons. So they’re raised up tall, spot lit, and draped with cloth. One piece represents a black Madonna that I studied when I did a residency in El Bruc, 45 minutes outside of Barcelona. In the Montserrat Basilica there’s a black Madonna, which was relocated there in 1100 when monks got relocated. So I got interested in black Madonnas as a sub genre of Catholic mysticism and iconography. My paper collages were greatly influenced by Slick Rick’s song “Children’s Story”–primarily abstract collages, but there’s a little bit of figuration in them. Disembodiment happens on one side. One side attacks another side, and the side that’s being attacked has kind of fragmented to abstract forms and shapes, but you’ll seen remnants of faces and noses and mouths. Big influences were Slick Rick and Rap music I listened to as a kid and revisited when I was older. Nas sampled “Children’s Story” in his latest record, the track is called “Cops Shot the Kid.” So he sampled that original song and changed the narrative to cops killing kids. Slick Rick’s original song was a scenario where a kid was doing a robbery, held a woman hostage, opened fire on the cops, and got killed that way. Which led me to the piece “When Heaven Mourned” in which I couple jacaranda flowers and portraits of two cousins whom passed away from gun violence.

D’Angelo as Mary Magdalene, acrylic medium and pigment ink, 100″ x 40″

Can you talk about how manipulating photos and conventional photo processes aligns with your work?

I employ a transfer process to alter and manipulate these photographs. So these images started in 1899 and I get them from the Library of Congress. I download the files from their site. You can actually go there too and see the whole collection. The photos are open source because of the date and they’re also under the Daniel Murray Collection. He actually helped with the original exhibition too. He was one of the first black Assistant Librarians at the Library of Congress.

So then I print out Inkjet prints, put glue on the prints and when that dries I peel it off. The ink side of the glue pull is coated with acrylic medium, so when that’s dry I soak that in water which breaks down the glue and leaves the Inkjet ink on the acrylic medium and I’m left with transparencies. So that whole process in the studio was originally reminiscent of the dark room. I stopped making dark room prints when I started doing color. Then when I started doing digital, I stopped doing color photography. Having a traditional background in Photography, I never wanted to let that go as I’ve moved to different forms of Photography. So it’s very much fluid–analog and digital. It’s synonymous with the way I deal with ideas and historical images. I take something from the past and rework it. The glue part started off as something I did in grad school trying to figure out ways to physically have my father in the work. A lot of my work was autobiographical, and thinking about my father and our relationship, improving it at least, that work brought up a lot of nostalgia and childhood memories. So putting glue on my hands, as kids do, and letting it dry and peeling it off to get a copy of it–that became really reminiscent of Photography with negatives, transparencies, and the positive/negative process. I wanted to talk about absence too and different forms of representation. Breaking things down into smaller parts is how understand things and build complexity and layers in the work.

Muse Study

Everything in this show is acrylic medium. There’s one study of 9×12 panels that has some resin on it, the tent itself and rocks obviously, but everything else is acrylic medium and Inkjet ink.

A point for me starting out seven years ago with this project was wanting one source of material, one process to apply to it, and see how I can elaborate on that over time.

How did you approach the space and/or the amount of exhibition space at ICA in Baltimore?

Whenever I told anyone about the space (ICA Gallery) I was having a show in, the first comment was, “Wow, it’s so big! What are you going to do with it all?” My girlfriend had a show in this space two or three years ago, and it was the same thing. She enlarged her work–I remember that conversation. So I was fortunate to be primed for that because of her experience here. Seeing other shows here helped too. I was definitely concerned and nervous, but I tried to put it at the back of my mind. I try to use it as an excuse to increase the scale of the work, make the work more poignant. I figured that if I didn’t want to have work that was on a monumental scale to contend with the physical space, then the other option would be, whatever the size, make the subject matter more poignant. Idea and concept-wise, it’s hefty, even if the presence may not be. So I found a middle ground. I made the tent structure, I made more tall figures. One thing that really started to come together was that I knew I wanted to intermix these panels with the larger collages and collages on paper. I didn’t want a wall of just panels. My reference points were all over too, so I didn’t feel the need to organize that in the show. I looked at a lot of other exhibitions too, and David Ubias and Emily Campbell’s shows were really successful and interesting in their installation.


Starting in college, I worked in a lot of galleries, non-profit and for-profit galleries, installing exhibitions, Corcoran Gallery of Art prints and photographs department, so I was fortunate enough to start out young in thinking about exhibitions and the process. I was doing that on and off throughout the years, so it’s very much embedded.

A lot of your work in this show is black and white, I know that this is formally an inherent part of the process but how did you approach color in this show?

I think the use of black and white comes from starting out in darkroom, black and white Photography. It also comes from me being very satisfied with tonality. I love color and color theory a lot, I love employing color, but I also find it very interesting to deal with color by putting it at the back of my mind and not conforming to rigorous color theory, but being really thoughtful about how the colors will play with each other with dark and light tones. I love the subtle approach to color, thinking about how it works out in the piece, but not being too hard on myself to figure out color interaction or color theory, so much. I approach color by kind of just going with what’s there [in the photograph]. That’s another way to articulate the back of my mind or another way to think about it. I don’t feel the need to change the flowers to black and white. It’s fine if they’re in color, as well as the portraits of my cousins. Another thing too is that there are colors that do appear, like the D’Angelo piece has some purple. There’s some colors that come up through the transfer process which is the residue of the paper that’s pulled from the glue when it dries–it sometimes comes up as a light blue or white. My printer prints black and white images in all colors, and even black and white darkroom photography is not black and white, it’s color actually. I don’t want to really resolve the color that comes in accidentally, that’s kind of how I like it so I use it.

What do you hope viewers can take from the work when visiting this show?

I really would like to have multiple ways, like a prism, to look at black bodies. Or bodies in particular. So there’s subjective or personal references to my cousins in a piece mixed in with images of flowers, so it’s a personal reference talking about gun violence and my cousins’ lives.

The Black Hole pieces are fragments of skin grafts to a larger body, giants. Then there’s D’Angelo and Sly Stone with the iconic presences, and the collages are fragmented–so I wanted both objective and subjective. A zoomed in and zoomed out point of view of the body, mixed in with some confusion and the inexplicable ness of abstraction. I was reading Ibram X. Kendi a lot while I was making this work and listened to variety of music in general while making the work, but Rap was the one that stuck, but reading that book–he breaks down racism. The Definitive History of Racist Ideas by Ibram X. Kendi, and he breaks down the arguments of racist ideas through categories of separatist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. He talks about figureheads that are central to these arguments from the beginning of slavery in Portugal to now. It’s a really comprehensive book, so that got me thinking about different ways of seeing the body and seeing black people and how people are engaged in a culture they may not be dominate in. So I started reading a book that approached race from different angles, so that kind of came into the show too. But I had to make it more personal and have my own reference points.


Is there anything you learned or realize in mounting this exhibition? Maybe something about where you want to go next, or something that occurred to you when seeing all of the work together?

It’s a great step back to just come in here. It feels very comfortable. And I’ve wanted my work to reach this point for a number of years actually. It’s been 2D single portraits, but I wanted them to be more imaginative. It feels right. Although this work is young, a few months old, there are pieces here that are two or three years old, I knew what this show was going to be about based on these three pieces. It just feels comfortable. Everything in this show is generative so I am making more of everything here. I feel this process will continue, and that’s quite different from my past solo shows and two person shows. I haven’t had too many of them, but those shows felt like they showed the completion of series I was working on in the studio. But this show feels like the start of something.

How long is the exhibition on view at ICA? What else you do you have coming up that you would like to promote?

This show is on view until September 23rd. I have a show coming up at The Park School of my 3D portraits and composite Ovals. Some of the ICA show and older work will be on display at Carver Center for Arts and Technology, coming up in November. I have an installation up now at the Woodlawn Mansion in Alexandria, VA. I have a group show at Hamiltonian show coming up in November. I have an artist talk on portraiture coming up at the Walters Art Museum in October. There is going to be a solo show a Hood College at the beginning of the 2019. The Hamiltonian solo show is in June 2019. I just got a show at UMBC’s Library Gallery in 2020, it will be really wonderful to dig through their collection.

Antonio in the exhibition
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