Erykah Townsend aims to make splash based on merit, not race - GulfToday

Erykah Townsend aims to make splash based on merit, not race

Townsend’s ‘Curly Burly,’ 2022, made with ribbons and bows, is part of the artist’s exhibit at Spaces. TNS

Erykah Townsend, a 2020 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, is off to a strong start as a professional artist in Cleveland.

That’s great for her and for the city, which aspires to make itself a more hospitable place for anyone pursuing a creative career in any discipline. But as a Black woman, and as a conceptual artist, Townsend feels she’s facing challenges in navigating a culture that appears suddenly to be offering Black artists opportunities based on identity, not merit that could limit her expressive freedom.

Townsend’s critique of the current movement toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, which she discussed in an interview with and The Plain Dealer about her current exhibition at Spaces gallery in Cleveland, is striking. It’s also highly relevant at a time in which arts institutions here and elsewhere across the country are striving to address racially-based injustice.


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Townsend said she feels pressure to focus on suffering and oppression because that’s what a newly sensitized marketplace, filled with gatekeepers who have undergone diversity training, has come to demand because it serves a new set of institutional needs that to her feel fake. She likens it to being artistically confined in a “Dirty bubble,’’ to cite the title of one of her recent works.

As the Spaces show demonstrates, Townsend doesn’t want to be pinned down. Entitled “Bitter Sweet,’’ the exhibition riffs on the idea that children’s cartoon shows and birthday parties are saturated with images, toys, and games that could be read as sanctioning violent competition, whether physical or economic, later in life.

Installed in the main gallery at Spaces, the show has a bright, cheerful surface. Townsend has filled it with objects and installations that evoke a shopping spree at a children’s party supply store. Yet there’s an edge to it all, and that’s what defines Townsend as a conceptual artist — one whose work emphasizes the importance of underlying ideas rather than the objects on display. Much of Townsend’s work centers on using “ready-made” or “found” objects, whose meanings change depending on the context in which she places them.

For example, Townsend arranges clusters of shimmering ribbons and bows on gallery walls in ways that evoke frozen bomb blasts. In another installation, she stuck a meandering strip of tape on the floor in a way that resembles the fuse of a bomb. It leads to a gift-wrapped box with an especially large bow on top that can be read as the flash of an explosion. The box is set behind a curved wall of colorful cardboard bricks, which acts as an imaginary blast shield.

One wall in the gallery is hung with tools and weapons, all covered with shiny red, silver, or black tissue paper and Mylar fringes. Some of the objects are real, including an ax and a cleaver, and some, including a plastic machine gun, are toys. Together, they hint at the ways in which objects played with by children may anticipate real violence in adulthood.

Erykah 2  Mylar balloons displayed in an Erykah Townsend installation. Tribune News Service

Townsend’s work is a critique of capitalism and consumerism, without any particular racial spin. The inspirations for the body of work on view in the show include the dystopian Netflix show “Squid Games,’’ in which people mired in debt vie against competitors for a mountain of cash in a grisly, grown-up version of a child’s game popular in South Korea.

Speaking of money, Townsend’s show includes a bulletin board covered with wads of fake cash pinned to the surface with prize medallions and ribbons. The work is accompanied by a wall label that says, “If your birthday card doesn’t have money then I don’t want it.’’

The words channel the internal voice of a spoiled child who knows she shouldn’t utter such thoughts aloud, but just the same, she can’t help thinking of them. Townsend’s piece reveals that inner voice, and the ways in which rituals of gift-giving may encourage greed rather than gratitude.

Townsend, now 24, is having a good year. She’s winning grants, nailing down exhibition dates, and forging a path toward artistic growth. Yet she also feels uneasy about the possibility that some of her early successes may have been based on her race, rather than strictly on her work.

As a 2015 senior at the Cleveland School of the Arts, she became the first Cleveland high school student to win a four-year full-tuition scholarship under a programme created that year at Cleveland Institute of Art in University Circle.

Townsend’s show at Spaces is the outcome of a residency that came with a $1,500 grant and a $2,000 stipend. This summer, she said she’ll have a new residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland that comes with a $4,000 creative budget, a $2,000 stipend, and $1,000 for any public programs related to the residency.

In the meantime, Townsend is scheduled later this year to have an exhibition at the for-profit Abattoir gallery on Cleveland’s West Side, where she participated in a group show in 2021. She’ll share the space with Alex Vlasov, a current student at CIA.

Townsend described all of this good fortune as evidence that Cleveland is becoming a better place for a young artist to start a career. The city combines affordable studio space with a growing sense of community, which for her centers on contacts with graduates and current students at her alma mater.

Yet Townsend also worries about a rising sameness she sees in the ways in which some arts institutions have suddenly elevated work by Black artists, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. At times, she said, prior standards of quality are not being upheld.

“I don’t want to get controversial,’’ she said, “But a lot of it is kind of fake. It’s forced diversity rather than natural diversity. They [museums and galleries] shouldn’t completely remove white people. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh let’s get a bunch of Black people and put them in the museum.’ “ Townsend also dislikes what she sees as a tendency among institutions that are focusing on particular kinds of content from Black artists. “We’re supposed to make work about oppression and slavery,’’ she said. “I want to make whatever I want.’’

Tribune News Service

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