Omission control: Tavares Strachan is reinstating the invisible heroes of history

A report by Amah-Rose Abrams for Wallpaper. Here’s an excerpt.

Tavares Strachan grew up in Nassau, in the Bahamas. Not very many artists come from Nassau. That being said, it is a small place, with a population of 393,244 compared with the 8.3 million people living in New York City where Strachan now resides. The remit of Strachan’s work, however, is as big as history and as infinite as time.

Strachan has sent the Black astronaut who never made it into space into orbit, and is in the process of finding invisible people of colour from history and reinserting them into the narrative. He is annotating collective memory and turning the clocks back at will. Creatively inspired by scientific thinking, Strachan has collaborated with both the Allen Institute and SpaceX, and has also joined several polar expeditions. A conceptual artist working in neon, painting, collage and installation, he challenges the norm and turns what is expected from him on its head.

Sitting in his Manhattan studio, in front of a wall of pinned notes and images fluttering in the summer breeze, Strachan muses on what it was like to define himself as an artist growing up on a small island. ‘I had to re-educate myself on what the existential relationship that I was going to have to art was going to be, because the way that I learned about art was these kinds of Western traditions of art-making that are primarily white and male,’ he says.

Re-educating, reimagining and repositioning are at the heart of his practice. ‘I think creativity has nothing to do with one’s identity, but more to do with one’s sense of purpose and spirit,’ explains Strachan. ‘When you’re thinking of creative practice in relation to limitation – limitation meaning that there weren’t very many artists who looked like me in the world – it became this opportunity to think about how the creative process is defined by the authorities, and basically ignore all of it. Do everything in spite of it.’

As an artist, he has strived to embrace what truly interests him. He used to be self-conscious about his passion for the creative aspect of science and the history of mathematics, but no longer. ‘When you are living in the Caribbean, and when you’re an artist, you are not expected to be interested in science. To do all these things together – to be where I am from, and to have these interests – is even more absurd,’ he says with a smile.

‘When you are living in the Caribbean and you’re an artist, you are not expected to be interested in science. To do all these things together is even more absurd’

Strachan is interested in teasing histories, topics and experiences out of the world that may not be apparent on the surface, that have been rendered invisible. ‘[African-American author] Ralph Ellison describes invisibility as a refusal to see,’ he recalls.

. . .

Above: Every Knee Shall Bow, 2020. Below: Touch the Stars, 2020. Photography: Jurate Veceraite, courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr was the first African-American astronaut and was part of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory programme, later absorbed into NASA. Had he not died in a pilot training exercise in 1967, it is thought, due to his age and qualifications, he would have joined the space shuttle programme. His story is little known. Strachan’s work Robert, which featured in the 2019 Venice Biennaleexhibition ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, was a pulsating neon sculpture of the body of Lawrence, who died in his ejector seat, suspended in space but arcing towards the stars. It struck the right balance between the conceptual and the simple rectification of omission. In 2018, Strachan launched the work Enoch, named after the biblical figure who could transcend death, into orbit in a collaboration with SpaceX and the LACMA Art+Technology Lab. The work, a gold bust of Lawrence modelled on an ancient Egyptian burial vessel, was encased in metal and released into orbit, where it will stay for seven years.

Along similar lines, the inspiration for ‘In Plain Sight’, his new show at Marian Goodman Gallery in London, is the story of African-American explorer Matthew Henson, the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909, with Robert Peary and four Inuit assistants. Henson’s story and that of the assistants, although a matter of record, have been less amplified over the years than that of Peary, who is white. ‘The story kind of popped up, and it went from being this piece of history, research, science, to being this beautiful metaphor for something so profound it is hidden in plain sight, something so essential that it is not recognised as essential,’ says Strachan.

Read more at Wallpaper.

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