In Conversation with Chelle Barbour: Dazzling Debut Show of Afro-Surrealist Collages Curated by Angela Bassett
Los Angeles–based artist, writer, and curator Chelle Barbour had her first solo gallery exhibition this fall, and what a debut it was. You IS Pretty!: Surrealism and the Black Imaginary was guest curated by Oscar-nominated actress (and art collector) Angela Bassett and hosted by the hip Band of Vices gallery. Featuring impeccably designed collages that offer an inspiring portrait of black women as preternaturally powerful, enigmatic, and fascinating, the show was a big hit—originally scheduled to close October 13, Band of Vices extended its run to October 25. So who is Chelle Barbour, and what’s she about? Let’s give a listen…
Kristina Feliciano: This is your first solo exhibition, and it’ co-curated by a Hollywood superstar. How did you pull that off?
Chelle Barbour: The benefit of Instagram is the immediate accessibility to art, artists, curators, and gallerists. It’s really changed the art game. Terrell Tilford, the Founder and Gallery Director of Band of Vices, grew more and more intrigued by my art on IG. One evening, we serendipitously met at a mutual friend’s art reception, where he expressed a fondness for my work, in person. After hearing glowing commentary about Terrell’s professionalism by other artists, I felt very comfortable engaging about my art and listening to his vision for BOV. Fast forward, over the summer I got “the call” and a projected exhibition date! LOL. The most stunning moment came when Terrell asked me to review the promo cards for the exhibition. I looked at his computer screen and my eyes froze when I saw Angela Bassett’s name! When we met, I felt as though I’d known her for years. She is brilliant. It has been an honor to have an exhibition at Band of Vices, the endorsement of Angela Bassett, and the support of the BOV team.
“Today, I may read the work through the lens of feminism, womanism, Afro-Futurism, identity, or gender and probably explore another filter tomorrow.”
You and Angela Bassett are both artists but work in very different mediums. How did the two of you collaborate for this show?
Angela is a fantastic actress and erudite art collector with discerning taste. Terrell Tilford spearheaded the collaboration of You IS Pretty! Terrell presented Angela the project, including images of my work, her response was, "Is this the work? This artist is deep, I'm on board." The range of work that I submitted enabled them to curate a complete show. I love Angela's total commitment to the project and that she chose my work for her curatorial debut! From our initial introduction and onwards, she has been very accessible, generous, down to earth and professional beyond measure. I honestly am the luckiest citizen of Wakanda to work directly with Queen Ramonda!
What themes did you want to explore with these art collages?
My Afro-Surrealist work elevates the diasporic imaginary of Black women; they are unapologetically black, beautiful, and empowered. Many of the pieces are classic and embedded with metaphors. The beauty of the work is that they are nuanced, open-ended and allow for a constant re-imagining and rereading based on the perception of the viewer. Today, I may read the work through the lens of feminism, womanism, Afro-Futurism, identity, or gender and probably explore another filter tomorrow. I like to say that the corpus is in a continuous state of “becoming”.
What’s the story behind the title You IS Pretty! and whose idea was it to name the show this way?
One evening, I was listening to Nina Simone’s greatest hits. While generating a long list of exhibition titles, Four Women began to play and it made me look at the entire body of work and I chuckled to myself and said, “Y’all sho’ IS pretty!” So I included You is Pretty on my list…After reading my list of potential exhibition titles, I didn’t want to make a decision in a vacuum, so I reached out to a few colleagues for their feedback. April Bey, artist and Professor of Graphic Design at Glendale College, suggested keeping the title short. Jill Moniz, Ph.D., an independent curator, shuffled my list of titles and came up with You IS Pretty!: Surrealism and the Black Imaginary. It sounded great and rolled off the tongue with ease.
“I honestly am the luckiest citizen of Wakanda to work directly with Queen Ramonda!”
“The characters in my body of work are infinitely transcendent and exist beyond objectivity, and while they are subject to the gaze of men and women, know that most figures are looking back at you.”
Your work has been described as Afro-Surrealism, a genre that’s being revived not just in contemporary art, but also in films like Sorry to Bother You.
I love that the Afro-Surrealist genre is having a revival in art and entertainment. What I love about Sorry to Bother You is the filmmaker. Boots Riley demonstrates how talking white (code-switching) helps Cassius Green, the telemarketer, achieve success in corporate America. Earlier this year, SNL rolled out a code-switching skit, Prison Job that spoke volumes about the prison industrial complex and its exploitation of black labor. Both Sorry to Bother You and Prison Job offer a birds-eye view into Afro-Surrealist situations that employ a survivalist method that is sacrosanct to black folks.
While surrealism was a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, it was re-contextualized in the 1970s by the late, Amiri Baraka who coined the term, Afro-Surrealism. As you know, by just being black in America you are guaranteed a heightened surreal experience. We cannot drive or walk down the street, sell water; set in a car, listen to music, picnic in the park, or even babysit while black in this so-called parallel universe.
My work explores depictions of black beauty from archetypical androgyny and femininity to non-gender binary. The characters in my body of work are infinitely transcendent and exist beyond objectivity, and while they are subject to the gaze of men and women, know that most figures are looking back at you. Using Afro-Surrealism as a prompt, the collage work in this series elevates the imaginary of black women, by eradicating unfair media representations. My work also includes references to Afro-Futurism and the Asian and African Diaspora with a twist of fantasy, avant-gardism, and minimalism. You will identify architectural elements, objects and structures, weapons, knives, organic forms, animal and reptile skins, vehicles, and human body parts taken from photographs, publications, and found objects that form representational themes and metaphors.
Follow Chelle Barbour @chelle.barbour