Death references were so frequent in my life that I found myself wondering: Is this simply a strange coincidental cause of my increased awareness or is it confirmation of the saying that death is always with us?
There is a prison in Syria, known as Saydnaya, where the prisoners can attest to that fact. In this prison, which is closed to international observers, the detainees are locked in near-total darkness, and blindfolded or made to cover their eyes, and it is estimated that, since 2011, some 13,000 of them have been executed. Their experience of this place, with its atmosphere of death impending through the walls, is known only and entirely through its sounds.
I have spent more time driving a car over the past three years than in decades prior, due to my move cross country from New York and Boston to the California Bay Area. Since then, I have been wondering how this practical shift in my mobility has also led to a more profound change of pace and purpose in the way I perceive and navigate the different worlds I move through as an educator and artist.
During our time scattered amongst the living, we are frequently on the receiving end of advice to the effect that death is the event we should fear the mosta reflex that has always bewildered me.
McCallums pictures can be felt as singling the viewer out, implicating the viewer in the movement of its testimony to Foleys experiences and to the people whose lives are caught in the conflict. The force of this testimony is felt as an encounter between the image and the viewer with indeterminate, yet potentially significant resonances.
I was thinking about the death of a generation of Black gay men as I was creating these new collages. Looking through a book of images by Robert Mapplethorpe, I considered how his images of Black men, the Black male body, and Black male sexuality were shaped by his white gaze. Was it possible for me, as a Black queer artist, to not only alter, if you will, how people approached the now iconic images, but to suggest or evoke to the viewer a Black gazethat of other Black, gay men?
Death, it has been remarked, is the one element of human existence that exceeds our empirical capacities, lying beyond our ability to achieve comprehension through personal experience. Our knowledge of death can only be derived indirectlyby observation of the deaths, real or imagined, of others.
In the colonial imagination, art and death have been bedfellows since the inception of slaughter as sport for the intellectual and spiritual elite. Beheadings, crucifixions, executions, rapesthese are the scenes of subjection to which art historys early canonical pride is moored. If not for the artists hand, the acts themselves mightve remained too wanton to fathom. Thats to say, without the roles of artist-as-witness and art-as-evidence, how were we to collectively imagine death, as both carnal practice and mortal eventuality?