Aisha Tandiwe Bell: She’s All That
Building a body of work not only as an act of social commentary, but as an act of personal transformation speaks to an ethos of active personal responsibility. It reflects a desire, whether fully conscious or not, to show up in the collective as one’s best self. For Aisha Tandiwe Bell, transcending the binaries explored in Conjure, her 2017 exhibition at Welancora Gallery, means a movement toward full personhood in Akin, one thatdelightfully culminates in black glitter. Dusted inconspicuously throughout a few of the last pieces finished for the exhibition, such as the all black mixed media work From My Palms (2020), these final works suggest the jump off point for Bell’s next mindset. Meanwhile, Akin reveals the process it took to get there. It acts as a bridge from a field of duality to one rich in the awareness of the possibilities of radiant wholeness; exemplified in the figurative, hybrid sculpture painting Radiate, Release, Resolve (2020). A host of swirling lines suggests the vibratory forcefield of a female figure’s aura in a vibrant earthy colorfield.
Bell describes this evolution as one that has moved from a consideration of self and others as fragmented beings navigating race, class and gender, to one where those fragments actually make a whole through dialogue with each other. Her work, she notes, always comes back to negotiating spaces and trying to get free. This concept is literally represented in her early Trap work involving trap music, sculpted boxes and performance. That same visual metaphor, the box as trap, now echoes quietly in the background of Bell’s hybrid sculpture paintings, appearing as two dimensional drawings in conversation with ceramic heads mounted on canvas. The title of one of these works offers a poetic metaphor for a conscious shift in positionality to the box, Trigger the Trap, Trap the Trigger (2020). The Trap is always lurking, but a skilled consciousness can act as a counterpoint. Thick architectural lines offer a linear backdrop to the black male figure in the foreground, while a small trap box lingers behind the man’s left shoulder. A black glitter line, a string, dangles from the box, loosely wraps around his arm, and grazes his fingertips. The pairing of sculpture and painting, along with the formal qualities of the work – its lines, planes and colors – evokes a dual meaning of the concept of depth, one artistic and the other philosophical.
A pivotal question resonating throughout both Conjure and Akin is: how do we blend into space or how do we make space blend into us? In Conjure, the piece Bars, Scars and Camouflage (2017) – a series of fired, glazed and painted stoneware faces mounted on canvases – every element is ensconced in painted stripes that cover the entire surface of each discreet work. This visual strategy obscures the human being behind bars, scars and camouflage – metaphors for mass incarceration, scarification and the concept of the mask laid out by Dubois’ double consciousness. A series of 6 small works installed in a grid, many of which are the first pieces made in early 2020 for Akin, link back to these same concepts. In these newer works, Bell pushes her exploration of mass incarceration, scarification and masks, allowing the stripes to transform into both linear and curvy lines that no longer fully obscure each surface or human being. In these works Bell asks: how can these scars and bars become something else? how can they become power, sound, or vibration? how do imprints on bodies and spirits waft off into the atmosphere as living, breathing energy? Bell’s titles again illuminate her intentions: Bars That Flatten Stripes that Scar, Bask in The Copper Rays of Change, Glow, Expand, Remember to See, and Bitter Sweet Peppermint.
Bell’s capacity for growth is not without struggle. Each medium present within her practice represents a different sensibility and aspect of herself. Terror and anxiety are present in the act of performance. Painting, although sometimes tranquil is more often frustrating. Her most natural innate medium is drawing, albeit not as enjoyable as clay, where moments of catharsis and peace abound. And indeed, it is the clay faces in her hybrid sculpture paintings that are so lifelike and full of spiritual presence that they radiate into three dimensional space, at peace through what appears to be a mastery of mind. A suite of pencil drawings included in Akin, some amped up with gold leaf, reveal the liveliness and tenacity of Bell’s hand and spirit. The bodies of figures with dual heads or multiple masks resonate with groundedness, wholeness and vivacity, suggesting a keen somatic awareness.
Taken together, Bell’s prior oeuvre and the work in Akin reveal a tension between mind and body; one that was perhaps reconsidered during a period of recovery after a stroke suffered by Bell in the midst of the Conjureexhibition. During that time Bell was not making work and had a chance to reflect and imagine. She began to ask herself: how do I want to say all that I have to say in one body of work? how do I pull all aspects of who I am into one object? Although she’s not there yet – with music, spoken word and performance absent from Akin – she is firmly embedded in her dance with a fully actualized self that is always becoming.
– Diana McClure