By Danilo Machado
Free to Be You and Me, the progressive 1970’s children’s album and television special produced by Marlo Thomas, is the jumping off point for Brooklyn-based artists Rico Gatson and Baseera Khan, who present new and recent work in Free to Be. The exhibition is a bold curatorial collaboration: Gatson and Khan shine both individually and together at Jenkins Johnson Projects, a Prospect Heights art space connected to the community around it and highlighting artists of color.
Gatson continues his Icons series, exhibited at the Studio Museum in 2017 and, recently, as part of the 167th Street Station in the Bronx. The new pieces in Free to Be feature iconic women—including Aretha Franklin, Angela Davis, and Nikki Giovanni—photo-collaged with his signature bands of color haloed outward. Also represented are Gatson’s vivid panel abstractions, compositions with an acrylic Pan-African palate on wood recalling Sol LeWitt, and his kaleidoscopic video portrait Memphis (2019), which features landmarks like the Music Hall of Fame, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the home of Aretha Franklin.
Khan also shows work that is part of an ongoing series, her Seats Series, which at Jenkins Johnson Projects are hung hugging the walls rather than as seats. The works are skillfully constructed from scraps of silks, undergarments, rugs, pom-poms, and other materials—in part from her mother’s hoarding. Their distinct shapes are silhouettes of figures wearing headpieces, symbols of spirituality and protection. The Seats are shown alongside Khan’s Nike ID #2 (2018), which is displayed atop a clear customized shelf containing books such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, and The Practice of Diaspora by Brent Hayes Edwards. Also on view is her video Brothers and Sisters, where the on-screen “scene notes” describe the “permenant [sic] fixture” of the couch where her father is “positioned consistantly [sic] . . . directly in front of the television.” As she sits down and asks about his siblings, it becomes a meditation on location, family history, and the “round edged, inarticulate . . . apolstery [sic] of wellness.” The blurring of memory is manifested visually in the video as Khan’s misspellings act as reminders of the distances between viewer and subject, between migration and second language, between children and parents. The practice, which she describes as “disarming” English, underscores her exploration of instability in relation to domestic spaces, materiality, and furnishings. It is also deployed in her Nike ID sculpture, which spells iamuslima between two pairs of Air Force One mid tops. Made after the company banned “Muslim” and “Islam” from being custom embroidered on their sneakers, the series suggests a loophole—or even protest.
Khan’s My Family Seated (2019) and My Family Standing (2019) are two stand-out pieces in the show. The works each show a black and white family portrait crowded with holes. They are made using the same leather hole punch utilized for grommets in Khan’s other work and arranged like the seating of the House of Representatives. The underlying images are photographs of Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, enlarged so that mostly shades of brown and black are visible through the holes. Their historic presence as the only two Muslim women in Congress is marked by a patch of pleather in both works. (Omar and Tlaib are also present in House 1, a photo print on cotton silk mix with pleather, trimmings, and gold grommets.) The works recall the canvases of Byron Kim’s Synecdoche Series (1991- present) or Fred Wilson’s sculpture Grey Area (1993), which also deploy representations of skin’s politically-loaded ascriptions of color.
Both artists present distinct, developed visions but also create memorable moments of convergence and contrast. Formally, Gatson’s sharp flat lines juxtapose the shiny organic curvatures of Khan’s Seats, but conceptually, both practices contemplate the presence of the body. The body is absent from Khan’s Seats, countering the presence of Gatson’s icons. Two pieces in memorable proximity are Khan’s Seat 34 Black with Lace (2019), whose negative space stands in for an absent head, and Gatson’s Throne III (2016), which lacks a sitter. Another striking coupling is My Family Seated, placed above the mantle in the gallery (the way a middle class television might be) across from Gatson’s CBP #1 (2019), composed of bands of television color in acrylic. This work not only connects to Free to Be You and Me’s television special, but to the racist history of television coloring calibrated to white skin tones.
In conversation, the two artists described their curatorial process as fluid and honest, which comes across in the feel of the space they have created. Indeed, there is care and intention present throughout the exhibition: care for family, for history, for materials, for one another’s work. The seriality of their practices emphasizes an ongoing and evolving contemplation of these ideas. Khan and Gatson, working in trusting proximity, exhibit a dialogue which values simultaneity over singularity, community over competition. What is most political about the show is not the fact that Khan’s Seats utilize materials with specific cultural associations or her centering of images of Muslim figures; it is not Gatson’s choice of illuminating political black women or his Pan-African palate—it is that these two artists are asserting agency and freedom, together, in a space which encourages it.