This feature highlights a different local artist each week. Got someone in mind you think deserves the spotlight? Hit us up at [email protected].
Artist of the week: Tylonn J. Sawyer
Known but unseen, dark matter permeates every corner of the cosmos. Scientists believe this mysterious material makes up more than 80% of all matter in the universe, though they can’t see it.
For Tylonn J. Sawyer, dark matter is a metaphor for African American contributions to art and culture.
“Often our contributions are sort of redacted from the history of those things,” Sawyer tells Metro Times. “The works in the show address a variety of issues from art history to water crises in major black cities.”
Dark Matter is the title of Sawyer’s latest exhibition at Detroit’s N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. It’s the first time he’s exhibited in his hometown in nearly a year.
The show includes paintings the artist has never shown in Detroit before along with some new work. It asks the viewer to imagine what a reality without institutionalized racism might look like for African Americans.
“What’s it like to be free of all the chaos and the racism and the B.S. and to just exist in this blissful state?” he asks. “It’s a question that warrants using your imagination to really think about what those types of spaces would be, divorced from the history that’s weighted with that. With the works in this show, we find ourselves sort of on the precipice of that.”
In contemplating this alternate reality, one of his pieces combines the imagery of a contemporary Black woman with regal imagery like Diego Velázquez’s painting of María Teresa.
A pair of paintings called “Turf War” juxtapose each other. One shows Black figures covering their faces with masks of historic white artists like Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell on one side. On the other side, the subjects hold masks of Black artists like Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringo.
“During the same period that these white artists were being championed and sort of shaping what we see contemporary art to be, Black artists were making notable contributions,” Sawyer explains. “But because of racism at the time, the Black artists in no way shape, or form really got the notoriety that the white artists did. It’s weird now to think about because Black art is really hot in the art world.”
He adds, “It’s also a commentary on my education because I went to Eastern Michigan University, and then I went to the New York Academy of Art, and the Royal Academy of Art in London and it wasn’t until I became a full-time practicing artist myself that I started to realize how ignorant I was to the contributions of these Black artists.”
Overall, Sawyer says just wants to show a multifaceted reality of Blackness which includes joy and beauty as much as it does sadness.
“The Black experience is a multivalent one,” he says. “It’s not just police brutality and sadness. It’s not just water shut-offs or floods. It’s also education. It’s also beauty and it’s also aspiration. It’s also having a critical dialogue with history and the future in and of itself. Oftentimes, in the media, we see a very flat interpretation of what Blackness can look like and I hope the show, in a very cohesive way, can make people see the myriad of ways blackness can be beautiful.”
Where to see his work: Dark Matter opens at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art on Friday, March 17, and is on view through June 19.
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