Tariku Shiferaw: It’s a love thang, it’s a joy thang
On ViewGalerie Lelong & Co.
It’s a love thang, it’s a joy thang
April 1 – May 15, 2021
Tariku Shiferaw’s It’s a love thang, it’s a joy thang embodies Black joy—but not in the sense that people might think. In his latest exhibition, the artist pays homage to quotidian pleasures: those often referenced in the jazz era, a time when the greats sang about their daily lives. Their happiness, the Ethiopia-born, Los Angeles-raised artist explains, was not in the commoditization of their music or in the difficulties they overcame, but in the beauty of their expression. Now based in New York, Shiferaw presents a show of his own work, featured alongside handpicked poetry and a stunning sound piece, emulating a love song, and showcasing the small joys on which a person relies to overcome. There’s a powerful playlist to match, bringing Shiferaw’s work to life, featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Aaliyah and Tyler, the Creator, Solange and Kendrick Lamar, along with many others. Each of his pieces, it’s worth noting, is inspired by one of the musical artists in the abovementioned playlist, adding a sense of interconnectedness to the concept of Black joy.
The exhibition is designed to be a multisensory experience. Shiferaw explains that he embraced ideals such as self-love and joy first and foremost, all while exploring the power of positivity on a more universal level. He cites celebrated American poet Toi Derricotte, an 80-year-old professor who crafted the famous 2008 poem “Joy is an act of resistance.” Derricotte’s work is printed in small font and mounted on the wall in vinyl, such that viewers must come closer and read lines such as: “What does her love have to do with five hundred years of sorrow, then joy coming up like a small breath, a bubble?” Like Shiferaw, Derricotte puts the nuances of Black joy into a tangible form, embracing the same, blues-based artistry as the creatives who came before her, demarcating the line between joy and sorrow. Here too, she finds pleasure in the small things; for instance, she writes extensively about the happiness she derived from observing her goldfish Telly, who cost practically nothing but offered her jubilance in his simplicity, in the way he smiled, and in the beauty of his mere existence in the world as a little orange fish.
The show itself, viewers will find, is serene and immersive in equal measure. With a new site-specific installation, Jerusalema (Master KG) (2021), reflective mylar sheeting covers one wall, layered behind high chain-link fencing that mimics the sense of separation one might experience from gazing across a barrier. On the opposite wall, flat, slatted wooden sculptures hang against a pink-painted panel, representative of the artist’s early use of shipping pallets. Here Shiferaw has created his own resting place, a space where he can simply chill out, relax, and, in his words, “not think about shit.” Installed in the middle of the room are Velvet Rope (Janet) (2021), and High Fashion (Roddy Ricch) (2021); between them a live palm tree and a smattering of sand that honor the artist’s childhood and conjure a Caribbean beach where both viewers and the artist himself can sit back and simply be. The black and blue hues only amplify this, highlighting the contrast of implied, lilting water to stillness of the air. Observers will find this dynamic play on black and blue in every one of the pieces on display.
They will find it, for example, in A Boy is a Gun (Tyler, the Creator) (2020), a rectangle of rocky mountain sky blue paint applied to the gallery wall, supplemented with the same palette-like sculptures. They will find it in one of Shiferaw’s favorite pieces in the show, Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley) (2021). Named for Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” (1977), it is a love song in its own right, focused on the intensity of separation—which Shiferaw describes as a ransom or denial of pleasure. In Waiting in Vain, much of a vibrant blue painting is hidden behind the bars of a black pallet; Shiferaw, through his use of lacquer paint, acrylic, canvas, and wood, hopes to spark discussion on what he calls the “incarceration of painting.” And, of course, viewers will find the same black and blue in The Nearness of You (Ella Fitzgerald) (2021), a darkened canvas with hints of deep blue denoting the nearness of better times, the thrill of wanting or waiting, or of anticipation.
Through It’s a love thang, it’s a joy thang at Galerie Lelong & Co., Shiferaw aims to move beyond notions of overcoming to embrace new tools and ideas through which a person might experience hope. The show is about tap dancing, he explains, about singing the blues, or about letting one’s hair down. Ultimately, through Shiferaw’s musical curation and abstract paintings and installations, he has opted against talking about trauma, instead focusing on how we might derive pleasure from the time we have.