Interview with Rashaad Newsome

Walking through Rashaad Newsome’s studio would reveal the following panoply: cutouts of scantily clad bodies from magazines, prints of designer patterns from high fashion, research into the aesthetics of royalty. For Newsome explores the many layers of class, culture, race and sex by combining art forms from different worlds. Street-level aesthetics, especially those found in his native New Orleans, are combined with mass-market imagery and symbols, as well as the tropes of Baroque in painting, sculpture, and performance. A performance at Art Basel 2015 included an 80-person parade of ATV riders and bikers in leather doing wheelies through Miami’s streets, alongside dancers vogueing and the thumping rhythms of Florida Memorial University’s marching band.

Newsome lead the parade from the back, riding in a custom-wrapped Lamborghini.

Born in New Orleans, Newsome grew up painting and drawing—though it wasn’t till later that he would gain confidence in his work. After getting a B.A. in Art History at Tulane University, he moved to New York and studied film at Film Video Arts. Today, his interdisciplinary works of performative collage generate heat at multiple levels, from the music world to that of art institutions. He gained significant praise for his orchestrated performance of voguers called “FIVE” at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, and has since collaborated with the likes of A$AP Mob and Solange Knowles’ record label Saint Heron—alongside his exhibitions at high-browed galleries across the United States and Europe.

How has New Orleans influenced your work?

In so many ways—from the colorful Mardi Gras Indians of the Tremé, to the extravagantly creative custom car community, and the New Orleans style brass bands. Improvisation is consistently regarded as one of the key elements in the language of jazz, and in a lot of ways this is the underpinning of notions explored in a lot of my performance work. More recently it has influenced my whole approach to staging a performance.

How so? 

Lately I have been exploring processional performance, a style of performance I grew up with. I am drawn to the ways in which it takes into account performance practices that do not trace their genealogy to the European avant-garde of the early twentieth-century. It considers a different history of performance that leads not to the stage or the gallery, but to the streets.

What are you currently working on?

A new series of collage works and a corresponding video that will premier at DeBuck Gallery in New York on April 21st. These works are a departure from the previous narrative of Heraldry. They are much more in conversation with portraiture and still life, with a surrealist and cubist approach. This approach comes from not only being inspired by works from these movements, but more so from looking at African art, which inspired these movements.

Where specifically are you drawing your inspiration from?

The images come from forms created by Iconic Vogue Fem performers I’ve worked with in the past or admired. I’m also thinking about where the material comes from that I’m using to create the images. I am particularly interested in spaces where feminism is happening outside of academia. I also use images from “urban model” magazines as a way to talk about beauty standards and the patriarchal gaze—the eyes and mouths of the images come from these magazines. It’s a sort of infiltration of the misogynist gaze. In the final work the gaze is transformed.

The frames of the works are also like works art on their own. 

The frames that house the work are sculptural extension of the collages. They are a way to talk about framing, reframing culture, reframing perception. The frames take inspiration from southern car culture, hence the custom candy paint and leather, as well as Dutch frames to draw parallels to portraiture, still life and the Vanitas themes in the images.

What was your first “wow” moment with art? 

I’ve had so many but what comes to mind is Glenn Ligon’s exhibition Come Out at Thomas Dane Gallery in London. The show consisted of screen-printed paintings based on “Come Out” (1966), one of Steve Reich’s early taped-speech works. In the paintings Ligon isolated the same phrase in Reich’s piece and used it to create densely layered canvases where “Come out to show them” is repeatedly screen-printed onto the picture plane. As an artist who is also inspired by Reich’s work, I was immensely inspired by the way the works mirrored characteristics of Reich’s music.

What was your first experience with vogueing? Why your interest in the dance form and with dance in general?

It was at a house party in New Orleans prior to my move to New York. I was mesmerized. I believe it to be one of the most beautiful dance forms in the world. The language of Vogue functions like open source that is constantly in a state of flux. I’m fascinated by how an art form that emerged in underground gay clubs and practiced by disenfranchised Black transgender and gay American youths catapulted to a global stage.

Your work explores the intersections of black culture at different levels. How would the art and Hip-Hop worlds benefit by being more involved with each other?

I remember when Hip-Hop was underground. Now Hip-Hop is pop music. The thing that is amazing about Hip-Hop entering the “mainstream” is that it has turned disenfranchised black and Latino poets and composers into millionaires, whose content dominates the pop culture sphere. A recent article on Artsy.net spoke about the small group of African Americans that occupy curatorial and museum acquisitions committee positions at mainstream museums and galleries, which results in fewer African-American artists being given major solo shows. Let’s be honest: nepotism runs rampant in the arts. Some of the most successful recording artists, label heads, producers, and athletes today are African-American, and I feel if they participated more in the art market they could really start to change that, and change people’s lives.

Published on March 21, 2016 for T4B Magazine.

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