Art Exhibition: April Bey’s “Colonial Swag”

We are so sad to have missed this earlier this year. Take a look at the dazzling work of Los Angeles-based, Bahamian artist April Bey, whose solo exhibition “Colonial Swag” is on view through June 11, 2022, at TERN Gallery in Nassau, Bahamas.

Falling between Bey’s well-received solo show at Gavlak Gallery, Los Angeles and a future exhibition with Simon Lee Gallery, London in September 2022, Colonial Swag finds Bey incisively coming home at the same time her work is deepening and being found by new audiences around the world. 

TERN Gallery is pleased to present Colonial Swag, a solo exhibition of paintings, tapestries, and mixed media by artist April Bey. Raised in Nassau on the island of New Providence in The Bahamas and currently residing in Los Angeles, Bey’s interdisciplinary work combines American and Bahamian visual culture and contemporary pop culture into potent and imaginative social critique. Her work incorporates elements of feminism, generational theory, Afrofuturism, Afro-surrealism, and constructs of race within supremacist systems.

Bey’s artworks are often crafted around the perspective of the fictional planet Atlantica, an Afrofuturist alien world which redefines Blackness outside the context of white supremacy and colonial suffering. Identified by the artist as her true point of origin, the planet was named in reference to stories her Black father told her as a way to explain racism, colourism, texturism and identity when she was a child. From the perspective of extraterrestrial observation and interplanetary transcendence, Bey’s works free Black expression from the politics and victimization of Earth’s ingrained power relations, imagining entirely separate realms and histories where no proverbial “isms” exist, glitter is currency and all inhabitants are glorious in their forms of free expression.

For her exhibition at TERN, Bey will exhibit two-dimensional mixed-media works and installations from her ongoing Colonial Swag series. Colonial Swag is a “high-fashion luxury brand on Atlantica that uses fully sustainable, ethically mined colonialism from Earth’s developing countries to create beautiful, priceless pieces of fashion.” This iteration of the series highlights the Afro-queer community of The Bahamas and inserts them into advertising campaigns for the alien luxury label. As in many Caribbean spaces, laws criminalizing homosexuality remain in The Bahamas as vestiges of its colonial period, leaving the LGBTQ+ community marginalized and vulnerable in absence of official forms of recognition. Incorporating fur, glitter, vinyl and woven textiles—materials rich in associative histories of queerness—Bey crafts icons around the images of real-life figures from her community, capturing acts of defiance and celebration that define a materialist aesthetic on an interstellar scale.

Contrasting the works from the Colonial Swag campaign across the gallery space are two tapestries featuring “détourned” images of Queen Elizabeth II, appearing here behind bars hand-sewn from West African fabrics. These arresting defacements refer both to the historic colonization undertaken by the British crown, including in The Bahamas, as well as to the greater system of oppression and power relations that imprison us all, Elizabeth II, included. Marginalizing the Queen in a gallery space of primarily Black bodies, who gaze directly outwards from their frames and pose in positions of empowered relaxation, Colonial Swag envisions our world from an Atlantican perspective, emphasizing images of freedom which break away from Elizabeth’s colonial entrapment.

Bey’s works manifest as woven tapestries, digitally woven blankets and textiles mounted on wood and encased in resin. All of her works are extremely labor intensive, with demonstrative care even in the materials used; many incorporate fabrics and elements sourced from Black femme-owned businesses. Bey’s titles (“Bitch You Better Praise God or Imma Shoot and That’s on God,” 2022; “They Fine Pass Mami Wata,” 2022) reference Blackness in contemporary society with free associative verve, plucking phrases from viral songs or blockbuster movies. In contrast, her subjects are typically personal relations and close friends, chosen here as models for the Colonial Swag brand and as idealized beauty standards for the Atlantican populace. Expansively imagining a world where Earth’s hierarchies are slyly flipped or simply forgotten, Bey’s ability to seamlessly combine pop-culture elements with surrealist imagery steeped in science fiction is a testament to her power to envelope us in her world.

APRIL BEY is a Bahamian interdisciplinary artist who makes work that is both an introspective and social critique of American and Bahamian culture, contemporary pop culture, feminism, generational theory, social media, Afrofuturism, Afro-surrealism, post-colonialism and constructs of race within supremacist systems. Bey is both a practicing contemporary artist and art educator, having taught a controversial course at Art Center College of Design called “Pretty Hurts”—analyzing process-based art and Beyoncé hashtag faux feminism. Bey grew up in Nassau, New Providence, in The Bahamas and moved to the United States in her early teens. She attained her MFA in 2014 from California State University, Northridge, and now resides and works in Los Angeles as a visual artist and art educator. Bey is currently a tenured professor at Glendale College.

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[Shown above: “Bitch You Better Praise God or Imma Shoot and That’s on God,” 2022; and April Bey in front of her work.]

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