In Stateless, currently up at Baby Blue Gallery, artists Kevin Demery and Raelis Vasquez deconstruct how articulations of race, power, and identity, can intersect and subvert the oppressive violence of neoliberal history. Stateless judiciously questions the legitimacy of toxic racial narratives, propped up by iterations of settler colonialism and unfettered capitalism, through inquiring–who decides what bodies matter? How can the racist relationship between brutal systems of power and Black and Latinx peoples be analyzed and undone? What does it look like for historical and personal trauma to be recouped and claimed? Demery and Vasquez gather from their own experiences as African American and Dominican artists to provide Stateless with an urgency that aligns the critical and timely message of the Combahee River Collective’s famous 1977 statement– “the personal is political.”1
Curated by Caleb Beck, founder of Baby Blue Gallery, Demery and Vasquez’s pieces operate in tandem to generate a hyper-awareness of bodily movement within the structures of the white space; curator and artists both work to deconstruct how the hierarchies of power define and limit the minority body. The title—inspired by Demery’s piece Stateless (Unto Flocks We Return—features an image of black South African children being lead out of their classroom by state forces during apartheid. The piece manifests the intent of the artists as it asks what happens when a state, our state, denies the validity of one’s human rights on the basis of race? What happens when a government claims no responsibility over their own citizenry?
Demery explores the tension between state-sanctioned oppression and individual violence throughout their work. Souvenir, one piece in a series of sculptures inspired by the Victorian Era silhouette tradition (and influenced by Kara Walker’s work), is named in honor of George Stinney. Stinney was a fourteen-year-old boy executed in 1944–the youngest person executed in the United States to this day. Stinney’s conviction for the murder of two white girls was posthumously overturned, the trying circuit court ruled that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated and his confession most likely coerced.2 Stinney’s murder by the American state intimately connects to the Jim Crow South’s history of lynching black and brown people, as our judicial systems were formed by pervasive structural racism–the root of a lynch mob’s violence. Souvenir’s title is a direct connection to lynching history as images of lynchings were originally circulated as commemorative memorabilia for white perpetrators and their audiences. Demery’s analysis of the state in Stinney’s execution brings to mind the case of Emmett Till. Through creating space to compare the actions of individuals in murders like that of Till versus the state in Stinney’s execution, Demery illustrates how campaigns of state-sanctioned terror penetrate all aspects of life.
The intricacies of the relationship between the state and individual are further deconstructed in Demery’s piece, The Myth About Black and Blue. The collage addresses the Black Lives and Blue Lives Matters movements through images of Civil Right era protestors being attacked by police officers, meditating on how the relationship between black and blue has long been politicized. However, the inclusion of a dissected, broken swing-set provides a devastating intimacy to the piece; it both expands and signifies what is lost to the oppressive framework of black childhood and state-sanctioned violence. From “fast girls” to the murder of Tamir Rice to Pecola Breedlove’s tragic wish for blue eyes in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, black children are denied the gaiety of childhood. Meaning that, a black child occupies a liminal position under white supremacist law–they are both invisible and a threat to the oppressive ideologies of racism.
Vasquez’s paintings also engage with the complexities of subjecthood through a psychological lens. His portraiture grapples with intersections of representation and identity within Afro-Latinx and immigrant communities. Vasquez takes from his own experience coming to America as a young person from the Dominican Republic in 2002; painting subjects with a deeply felt humanism. In the piece, The One Who Will Lose Her Accent and The One Who Never Will, Vasquez explores the process of acculturation, and what the transition to a different country means for a young person’s sense of self, place, and belonging. Simultaneously, he inquires what transformations occur for the one who never will lose their accent–i.e. the parents, guardians, caregivers, who leave home behind to begin again. With a color palette that shifts from warm to cool, the viewer is presented with a window into the lives of the piece’s two subjects. Studying the emotion swirling across the faces of the woman and young girl, a moment of meeting takes place in which their personhood is affirmed without denying either the intricacy of full identity. Vasquez’s series of untitled character studies are imbued with the same psychological depth, each face gazing out towards viewers for exchange and recognition. Bringing to mind Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez’s bildungsroman, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent (the story of four sisters’ experiences immigrating to America and their Dominican childhoods under the Trujillo dictatorship) Vasquez’s work carries the same journey to home and self through the shadows of colonialism and colorism.
As a whole, Stateless is a timely intervention in the dialogues surrounding race, identity, and power. We live in a critical moment where the message of the Combahee River Collective stands prescient–the personal remains political. But this is not to assert that all narratives of racial identity should or can be defined by trauma and oppression. Rather, Stateless reminds viewers of the power of bearing witness; actively listening to and engaging with another’s experiences as the first steps to deconstructing systemic injustice.
- Williams, Vanessa. “Before There Was ‘Intersectional Feminism,’ There Was the Combahee River Collective.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Mar. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/03/01/before-there-was-intersectional-feminism-there-was-the-combahee-river-collective/?utm_term=.cdb9599f79ae.
- McLeod, Harriet. “South Carolina Judge Tosses Conviction of Black Teen Executed in 1944.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 Dec. 2014, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-south-carolina-idUSKBN0JV25320141217.