Biennials have marked a decade of the art world, as they aim to showcase regional talent and provide a cross-section of contemporary styles, vernacular, and topical issues. For its duration, Atlanta Contemporary has been the proud host of the Atlanta Biennial—one of the longest-standing and largest in the Southeast—with the first one launching in 1985, during its era as NEXUS. Georgia State alumni, faculty, and students are very involved in the expanding and ever-evolving scene of the city and region, having founded a number of artist-run organizations, nonprofits, and creative publications—it only makes sense then that the school would have strong, consistent representation at the biennial. This two-part biennial, Of Care and Destruction and Virtual Remains, is no exception.
Plans for the biennial were announced before the global pandemic and understandably changed a bit in light of major events in 2020. The shows—curated by Curated by Dr. Jordan Amirkhani and TK Smith— morphed to encompass discussions around “social issues caused by COVID-19, racism, inequality, and the essential role artists play in our understanding this moment and movement.”
The alumni in this year’s 2021 Atlanta Biennial: Tori Tinsley, Shane Dedman, Lillian Blades, Shanequa Gay, Davion Alston, and Yanique Norman, hold their own in the acclaimed exhibition with timeless works that tap into our shared sense of current global and chronicled grief. We reached out to three alumni who discussed their new work and reflected on the significance of being included in such a momentous exhibition.
Art +Design: Tell us about the piece(s) you have in the show. Can you contextualize your work in the Atlanta Biennial within your practice?
Davion Alston: The work within the Atlanta Biennial is an amalgamation of images taken within the recent year. I desired gathering with friends during a time of so much isolation, tension, and loss...I wanted to mirror that feeling of longing through a more tactile approach—hence my use of collage to fragment certain moments and displace the subject in new compositions—relating that displacement through a traverse use of materials such as mud cloth and bleached newsprint. Ephemerality and light play a role in this work because my discipline is the mastering of light on surface materials. During certain parts of the day the glass prisms hanging in mid-air bounce light around the gallery floor and walls, expanding outward for only a moment in time, illuminating light onto my contemporaries exhibiting near me. This allowed me to challenge the viewers presence during temporary moments of intimacy within the work.
A+D: Did you make work specific for this show and/or in response to the past year?
DA: Yes and no. Last year is a continuation of now, and my work typically functions intuitively in response to constraints of space placed around me. My work feels like an intimate installation built in response to the physical space around my piece.
A+D: Discuss your piece and the reflections that inspired it.
DA: Being in Atlanta during Pandemic and Protest it just seemed appropriate to negate away from certain politics while fully respecting the cascading series of telescopic, unfortunate events. I am collaging memories and obscuring faces as a form of protection.
A+D: Can you speak briefly to the role and success of the 2021 Atlanta Biennial?
DA: I find the Biennial to be a pivotal self reflection of not only the current happening(s) in the SouthEast region, but an exhibition of hope through so much tension. Each person exhibiting within the Biennial has proven themselves time after time through the exploration of self as it is highly present within the space, through either modes of laborious repetition seen in pieces done by Yanique Norman or through the stillness, and tension within the color blue of LeAndra LeSeur's seven-channel video piece.
It makes me extremely emotional and enlightened to be a part of this exhibition because I am showing with former teachers, after a period of isolation, in hopes that one day I would be where they are.
Art + Design:Tell us about the piece you have in the show.
Shane/Dedman: The trilogy is an experimental visualization of transitional momentum. PHYSICAL BODY is both documentary non-fiction as well as narrative investigations into glitched, internal matrixes. Using memory as a muse has allowed me to bend time in a way that embraces my full fluidity of being as a trans non-binary filmmaker. Part III: Folly specifically is Trans Drag Cinema.
A+D: Can you contextualize your work in the Atlanta Biennial within your practice?
SD: On a personal note, the work I am exhibiting in the Biennial has allowed me to externalize loss in order to accept the alchemy of healing trauma. Through the art of drag as well as filmmaking, the trilogy expresses my internal longing to be visible as a trans artist and to contribute to queer representation. From here I am developing my next long-term project that documents affirming moments within my ongoing social and medical transition.
A+D: Did you make work specific for this show and/or in response to the past year?
SD: I developed this work with the support of TAR Project and curator TK Smith over the course of the last two years. When I started this project, I had no idea it would land in the Biennial, but I grew more and more excited as it developed and belief in my work was so kindly validated by my support system. Quarantine has given me the time to sit in the discomfort of both production and personal capacities. It is truly a pleasure to be involved and given space to express in these times.
A+D: Can you speak to us about your piece and the reflection or inspiration that prompted it?
SD: I was really inspired by the Structuralist filmmakers as well as the films "Daisies," 'Pink Narcissus," "Looking for Langston," and the retrospective of Dara Friedman, "Perfect Stranger." I audited a film theory and criticism course with Daren Fowler, who teaches in Georgia State's Film Department, the first year of this project, and being taught by a non-binary professor was life-changing. Towards the end of the project, I was recommended the text, 'Glitch Feminism' by Legacy Russell, in a Contemporary Crit (an Atlanta Contemporary program) with artist Le'Andra LeSeur, and immediately purchased the book. I fell in love with Russell's work. I am also largely inspired by things that anger me within art history—such as Claude Cahun being misgendered in texts about their life and work—and I use that as a driving force for determination.
A+D: Can you speak briefly to the 2021 Atlanta Biennial, reflecting on the other work, the curatorial vision, and the experience of participating?
SD: TK is such a fantastic curator who is dedicated to spending time sitting with work in progress—which is invaluable to artists. Working with him has allowed me to develop a sustained enthusiasm and affirmation in my process. I greatly enjoy screening my work in Chute Space and am very proud of everyone involved. I have frequented Atlanta Contemporary with friends and collaborators to savor this moment. I’m very grateful for everyone’s support, especially that of the Contemporary staff, in facilitating such a wonderful and immersive exhibition. There will be a virtual screening and panel discussion of my trilogy on May 29, from 12-2 pm, for those that can't access the space physically.
Art + Design: Tell us about the piece you have in the show and contextualize it within your broader artistic practice.
Shanequa Gay: My piece is called "The True Manifestation the Garden of Bonneville, Sacrificing Black Abundance." I created this work in response to the title of the Biennial exhibition, Of Care and Destruction. A huge component of my work is steep in and entwined with toile, what many of us know as a French textile which is actually Indonesian. During the time of its inception in France, which was around the 18th century, toile was a tool for colonial expansion and a mode of self creation. It depicts romantic, idyllic scenes in lush, pastoral landscapes; if you've grown up in the South, it's familiar decorum. I love to play: seducing the viewer with something familiar in order to introduce a counter-narrative.
Here in my piece, I posit my own kind of "care and destruction" where Black women are the embodiment of both: the 'Mitochondrial Eve' if you will. So a creation scene, similar to that of Michelangelo's is depicted: it has two figures, one is a woman and the other is a vultures. Vultures are nature's clean up but also depicted as female throughout history. I am speaking to the ability to nurture and abolish, to create and dismantle these godlike Black, southern, characteristics. This old school Bonneville of hip-hop squats and poses of dominance...Overall, it's a flex on power, femme, and culture.
A+D: How did you create your large-scale work?
SG: My piece is painted in acrylic. I designed it first digitally, created a motif, and projected it on the wall at the entrance of the show.
A+D: Can you share your thoughts about the biennial and what it means to be invited to participate?
SG: What I love love love about "Of Care and Destruction" is simply Dr. Jordan Amirkhani's vision along with TK Smith's show. This is the most dynamic biennial that I've seen—but of course I am biased! It is full, as well as simplistic—they didn't throw everything but the kitchen sink at you. Every piece feels so intentional and every piece feels like walking into something grand. It is given with care. Jordan was a beautiful host and usher in bringing creatives into the space. I appreciated working with her and Atlanta Contemporary as a whole. It is a very diverse body of work and not just in art, but in persons and humans exhibited. It was an honor to be a part of this.
This is part one of a two-part series. Tune in early this semester for words from our other alumni. Curated by Dr. Jordan Amirkhani, Of Care and Destruction is open through August 1 2020, as is Virtual Remains, curated by T.K. Smith.