Todd T. Brown on “Inheritance”

On Friday, September 16, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., the de Young will present the opening of Artist Fellow Todd T. Brown’s mixed-media exhibit Inheritance, a complex exploration of the intersection between human histories and the self-identity. The opening will coincide with our weekly event Friday Nights at the de Young and will be located in the Kimball Artist Studio.

The exhibit will include a 33-foot large-scale work, Invisible Passage, which Todd Brown completed as a de Young artist-in-residence in 2009. He is currently working on a set of accompanying pieces that will not only expand upon the thematic basis of that original piece, which portrays a diagram of a slave ship, but will also invite visitors to examine their own ideas of a distinct and immediately recognizable historical moment as well as of our relationship to the whole of human history. Brown manages to literally and figuratively unite a set of new works with the monumental Invisible Passage despite differences in medium, imagery, and historical reference. In other words, he has taken a rich, multilayered piece and elaborated upon it, bringing us deeper into his multifaceted meditations on what it is to be a human being and what it means to find where you fit in a world and society that thrives upon the formation of strict categories.

Todd T. Brown has sewn enormous, bold ideas into the vibrant yet minimalist visual works that make upInheritance. We recently had a chance to sit down with him and explore the aspects of his journey as an artist and as a human being that led to this exhibit and discover what ideas he has been exploring in preparation for its completion.

Explain how your pathway as an artist led to Inheritance.

I would say that, as a human being, it was the feeling of wanting to know where I fit in this world. You are born into this world, and the adults really don’t have the answers for us, so we grow up kind of learning and making our way, and I think I experienced a long journey of trying to see “where do I fit?” and “how do I be responsible to this world around me?” It’s different if you’re born in one part of the world from another part of the world. I was born in the States; in a situation where I was relatively well off, with access to higher education. I was in that sort of “first world United States.” In college, I started to become aware of global history, of how our accumulation of resources generally comes at the expense of the developing world, particularly the global south. So, maturing as an adult was really asking, how do I understand that? How do I find my own joy and inner peace while also reckoning with history and the present day situation that I benefit from because of the arrangement of economics?

I came to the title Inheritance, which I feel pretty good about, because I’m thinking about that word in its fullest sense. We think of what we inherit individually from our family—everything from material things to biological things. We inherit on a global scale all of human history, and for those of us living today we’ve inherited everything human beings have amassed in the past: everything from the most horrific sides of humanity to the most beautiful, poetic, and rich sides. When we try to understand ourselves, we’re only picking from part of that scope—we’re looking at a piece of history and identifying it rather than seeing that we’re part of this immensity. So by using this title, I’m trying to point towards the fact that we’re all born into this immense inheritance and that we really don’t know what to do with it.  We’re still trying to make sense of it. At least for me, you stand and kind of look at that vast scope and it’s humbling. It makes me want to understand more, makes me less likely to assert something, to say, “this is the solution, this is how it should be.” We’re surrounded by so much that we don’t know.

So with Inheritance, you’re really commenting on a shared global consciousness.  How did this theme emerge in your work and how does it continue on in your current work?

In college I was a fine arts major, and while I was focused in painting, I also had a lot of freedom to take electives, so a lot of my time was going into classes, a lot of literature from African American history, from the Harlem Renaissance to the present, and developments in theater in Africa, how it played a role in political struggles, understanding the process of colonization. I was developing painting techniques on one side and trying to comprehend these much larger issues on the other side, in present day. Since that time, those two sides have kind of swirled around each other, kind of progressing in their own way.

How have your past residency and current fellowship at the de Young inspired you or influenced your work?

I did a residency at the de Young in 2009 with Meklit Hadero, and that’s when I painted this large-scale piece called Invisible Passage, a piece based on a diagram of a slave ship. It’s this huge diagram that has other painted layers, and my focus wasn’t necessarily on slavery or passage, but I was thinking about this theme of Inheritance. I was looking at how today, we’re still trying to work all that out. Everything that’s gone on in US history, we’re still trying to work that out – we don’t have answers. Painting that piece was my way of going into that, but anyone who looks at that piece, they’re going to see a slave ship. Right away it’s a very specific symbol designating a specific history and now I’m doing a fellowship in 2011 and the de Young has invited me to bring that piece back. What I’m doing now is definitely related to how that piece sparked the present.

How has bringing this piece back into the same space but in a different context affected your idea of the piece, how you’re going to incorporate it into a new series of works?

Bringing that piece back—and getting the response that I get from it—I had to first of all create a body of work that’s going to go with this piece. You’ve got a 33-foot painting in a gallery, it’s going to dominate the exhibit, so in order to make a strong body of work that relates to it I had to think, How do I take an image that’s so impregnated with this specific meaning and open it so that more people can relate to that?

For instance, someone’s going to look at a slave ship and they’re going to see it as a work dealing with African American history; they’re going to see it as specific. One of the first questions when looking at me as a white American artist painting a slave ship is, “Why are you painting this?” Looking at that made me think about how it’s unlikely that someone will look at me painting that and think of it as a work exploring European history, and there’s also that aspect because the ships were designed and sailed by Europeans. That in itself leads to a more complex understanding rather than these narrow narratives of which history belongs to who. You begin to see that these histories are really infused with so many different histories. The whole of the work is coming out of a deep sense of care of people, and to really care for people means to kind of hold the wholeness of who they are rather than pegging them into a narrow category.

With the performance work we’re going to do, we’re thinking of using masks. I’m going to cover my face, and people usually think that if you’re going to cover your face, you’re hiding, but what if you flip it and say that I’m covering my face in order to make you see beyond my face? If you see my face, you’ll make assumptions about who I am, where I come from. So it’s like using the mask as a device to say, “what if we look beyond that?” If you think about biological inheritance, why it is that you have a certain nose, certain eyes, the way that you do something… My mother tells me that the cadence of my speech sounds like my grandfather’s. I feel certain that there’s ways we do a little thing…that five generations ago we have some great great grandmother or father that, you know, they have a friend who could just look at us and tell us we’re acting in the same way they used to do. If you think about it in terms of what manifests in us today versus how we think about it, when we think about identity we think about it in terms of ethnicity, “I’m a quarter Irish, a quarter French,” we create these percentages, but they’re really based on such a general sense. And you think of how if you have green eyes or blue eyes in a family of brown eyes… it doesn’t have to do with percentages. It’s not like my eyes are 14% something. It’s the way that things that we inherit, aspects of our pasts, different people: something could come out and fully manifest in you that’s from somebody you didn’t even know that was part of your ancestry.  I want to undo the assumptions around who we are in order to embody and accept a much bigger sense of who we are. I’m not just this one thing, but I’m full of many things, I’m things I don’t even know but I am those things—our world is becoming more and more like that, the dissolution of borders. We’re becoming more and more complex.

It seems like your approach to this specific exhibit and to your art in general is very multidisciplinary, which is, in itself, a very complex approach. Is there something about the fact that you incorporate so many mediums to express these ideas that is itself expressing the idea of complexity, interconnectedness, and going beyond assumptions about what art is and having to fit yourself into some kind of a category? Or is that just an aspect of your art that kind of happened?

I think it’s a mix of both. You know, for myself as a person, I never felt one clear path. I think from early on, I had a drive to go many different directions. People advised me to just pick something or otherwise you’ll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. And I ultimately just decided to be myself, I’m going to do all these things… and ultimately, that led to the founding of Red Poppy Art House. The space that I created is interdisciplinary and I think it’s that way because I sought to bring all those elements together, you know, music, visual art, poetry. It makes me think about how in our society we’re a very specialized culture, we specialize in order to play a specific role in an economic framework, and then you make money through that specialization and you support yourself. There’s a part of me that struggles with that, to say, well, there’s strengths to specializing. When you do that you lose things, too: “my mind can only focus on one thing and lacks what can be gained from experimenting.” I think you need both: you need specialists and generalists.

How many of these different elements are going to be in Inheritance? What can we expect to see in terms of media?

The exhibit is going to involve paintings with collage, and charcoal. All these pieces here [in my studio] are part of that exhibit. You can see the collage that I’m doing involving documents that are copies of leases for land in Africa. The Oakland Institute in June came out with major research about the corporate land-grabs that are happening in Africa. There are corporations that lease 600,000 hectares for 49 years, a dollar per hectare, all done very obscurely. I was talking to the director and I told him that I’d be interested in using these as part of a collage, because you have a certain history repeating itself. First we start with a slave ship, and then we have this, which is going on now. There’s a friend of mine who started a space in Chiapas, in Mexico, and there are people there who have been struggling with the issue of land. You know, the Mexican government in 1994 took out an article that was protected communal land. Indigenous people had been living on this land for thousands of years, meaning they don’t have a deed that says “we own this land” because they’ve been living on it for so long, and the nation can come in and say that the nation owns this land and sell it out from under the people to whatever company is going to develop it. And these communities just get pushed off the land, and that sort of deals with the issue of identity and otherness and non-entities in a sense. People appear to have no economic value, they can just be moved here and there.

If I think about my own personal experience, having a feeling of, “Where do I belong?”, times when I feel like an other, even when I’m at a party thinking “where do I fit?”… In high school, I had three friends who committed suicide – it was this kind of thing that has to do with self-negation, when you’re an other, when you struggle with where you fit, how does that personal narrative connect with a broader global narrative of global communities, of people that are dealing with self-negation or being negated where what is taught to them is, “You need to assimilate in order to be a part of this culture.” That’s how I make an unusual jump between where I came from and struggles that I hear in other parts of the world. It seems like a long jump.

A good metaphor is seeing yourself as a country, and within that country you have many selves. There’s a dominant group, then there’s all these minority groups on the periphery that aren’t given voice, that are denied space, that struggle to be heard, that just eventually become silent and don’t speak up anymore. It’s that little voice inside of me that says, “I want to do something different.” In terms of being an artist, it’s usually a creative side, and we’re taught to fulfill a working role. There’s a side of us that becomes marginalized: I’ve always wanted to dance, but I feel like I can’t. These parts of ourselves get marginalized.

And then when you think of it in terms of a biological inheritance—you kind of are a country in terms of how many people were required to make you. All the voices that came before are coming through. I don’t have an answer: this puts me in a space of wonder, and you don’t hear people talk about it that much, but it makes me curious, and it makes me understand myself and others in a different way. The bottom line is: what’s going to make us curious about each other?

We sum each other up.

So you want to encourage the recognition of the fact that there are many other alternative interpretations and ways to expand our views of the world and other people rather than just drawing conclusions?

In other words, inspirations to me—people and writers and things that I get inspired by—are often times people that feel marginalized in such a way that they have to find their own voice because they can’t buy into some collective narrative. And so a lot of times, there’s a dominant group and then another group gets marginalized, and then there’s a further marginalization that goes on. For instance, James Baldwin, who is one of my central influences—a queer, black Male writer of the 50s, 60s, and 70s who left the states to go live in Europe. In his writing, I hear that constant struggling with understanding identity in terms of the whole history of race. But at the same time, he himself is marginalized even within his own minority because he’s gay, because that just wasn’t acceptable at all at the time. It’s being a part of something but then you’re forced to think more deeply, because you think, “I am black, but I’m not just black.”  It’s like my friend who’s all about gay pride, and he’s like, “I am that, but sometimes I don’t want to necessarily just hold up a rainbow flag and just be that, whatever that perception is.” We are these things, and yet we’re more. We’re trying to find that place for the Moreness.

Please expand on “Moreness” and the theme of “spaces of encounter.” Where do these themes fit into Inheritance and your work as a whole?

You’re from somewhere, maybe your parents have different heritages, but whatever it is, you feel like you’re straddling the world. So, you can’t fully just be content with the world, you’re kind of between. Where do we create the space to allow that? How do we create a space that doesn’t force us to choose one narrow identity, but gives us space to keep experiencing the complexity of our own personal identities as well as that of other people? I connect with other things I learn about, things like the Zapatistas in South Mexico. It’s kind of the opposite of assimilation, where the expectation is that you need to be programmed in order to be a part of a society. Instead, we can create a space of encounter where I can show myself to you and you can show yourself to me. There’s no expectation that we should be like each other but instead we come to know each other, and in listening to you I get to understand myself better, because you’re different than me, and that helps me understand how I’m different.

September 16-23
Kimball Gallery, de Young, Golden Gate Park

Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 am – 5:00 pm + Fridays until 8:30 pm
except Saturdays, 1:00-5:00 pm only
Please note: The exhibit opens at 6 pm on 9/16

Opening Reception
September 16, 6:00-8:30 pm
Artist Talk
September 23, 6:00-6:45 p.m.

Select works will be on display through September 30

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