Installation view of “Packaged Black: Derrick Adams and Barbara Earl Thomas,” 2021, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle.

‘Packaged Black’ Sparks Conversations of Representation, Black Identity, and Cultural Resistance

by Nina Dubinsky

Masked visitors were greeted by warm yellow walls featuring sculptural vignettes, precisely cut paper portraits, video installations, and collages at the inauguration of Packaged Black: Derrick Adams and Barbara Earl Thomas at the Henry Art Gallery last weekend. 

The exhibition brings together the brilliance of Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams and Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas. It is a perfect mesh of works and mediums born from the two artists’ shared dialogue about representation, Black identity, and practices of cultural resistance. Though the concept of a shared exhibition between two artists is not new, there is something special about the visual dialogue between these artists.

“One of the things that is so exciting about this project is its origin out of mutual respect and shared conversation between these two artists,” said Henry Art Gallery curator Nina Bozicnik. 

In a public conversation at last weekend’s opening, Thomas touched on the significance of sharing this exhibition with [Adams]: “I feel like one of the things that we suffer from … I call it the ‘One Syndrome.’ There can only be one really famous Black artist … The idea now that … we can share and no one will be diminished because we’re not being chosen, we’ve chosen each other. It’s made me feel very expansive.”

Adams’ work in the exhibition examines how fashion and self-styling communicate identity and interact with Black culture and commerce. This is seen in the colorful large-scale portraits from his Style Variations series. These larger-than-life portraits evoke imagery from the braiding salons and wig shops that dot the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where Adams lives and works. 

“It’s really about me showing you the formal aesthetic of urban culture and the formal aesthetic of Black culture and how significant it is and how influential it is to the overall landscape of the world,” said Adams.

In addition to Adams’ portraits, there is also a gallery full of collages and sculptures inspired by his ongoing research into the work and influence of the late Black fashion designer Patrick Kelly.

“Patrick had a very particular way of presenting his ideas. It reminds me of performance art,” said Adams, “I became very interested in him as an artist — researching his life, things related to his practice, and drawing inspiration for making a body of work.”

As Adams immersed himself in Kelly’s work he became highly interested in the designer’s thought process which resulted in collages — aptly titled Mood Boards — that explored Kelly’s use of texture and assembly.

“It wasn’t a far reach to engage in conversation with his work,” said Adams of Kelly. “The colors he used are similar to those I use in the color blocking of my paintings. The collages were a natural progression that moved from my usual breaking up of the figure to more abstract forms that incorporated Patrick’s clothing patterns as a stand-in for the figure.”

Photo depicting Derrick Adams' artwork "Style Variation Grid 3."
Derrick Adams, “Style Variation Grid 3,” 2018. Acrylic paint on digital photograph inkjet on watercolor paper. Courtesy of Salon 94 LLC, New York.

Artwork inspired by cultural luminaries is a theme of the exhibit. In complement, Thomas’ work taps into real and imagined spaces through the visual language of fairytales and archetypal stories. As a fellow multidisciplinary artist, Thomas brings extra layers to the narrative. 

“You’ve reacted to Kelly as a designer and a maker of fashion, and in this show, I’m reacting to your visual research about Patrick Kelly and his designs …” said Thomas to Kelly. “I’m thinking about being around lots of people with deep senses of how they exist in the world, how they are perceived, knowing that the bodies that they come in are not the standard one presented to us through the larger media.”

For example, a 9-foot-tall illuminated cut Tyvek dress form with a draping train leads to Thomas’ Transformation Room which immerses visitors in a glowing installation. Thomas’ all-new work in this exhibition plays off the bold colors and patterns in Adams’ work in perfect harmony.

Thomas also immortalizes her community and loved ones with precise cuts that reveal colorful hand-printed negative space that takes the shape of people in her life. “It allows me to honor those people that I love and also the idea that I’m honoring people who are both really well known and people who are just in my community,” said Thomas about the portraits in the exhibition. 

Her portrait Delicious depicts two Seattle creatives — David Rue and Aísha Noir — known as the duo DANDY in a pose originally captured by artist C. Davida Ingram. “She organically brings community together through art in amazing ways, not just through making, but in the way that she curates her energy, her space, and the city,” said Rue of Thomas. “And her light is so bright.” 

Photo depicting Barbara Earl Thomas' artwork "Delicious."
Barbara Earl Thomas, “Delicious,” 2021. Paper cut with hand printed color. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York. (Photo: Zocalo Studios ~ Spike Mafford)

In an amalgamation of light, shadows, and ’80s bops, both artists come together in their collaboration piece Rotating Lantern. The slowly rotating lantern, reminiscent of a disco ball, casts shadows of imagery made by both artists around the room. The combination of dancing shadows and music makes for a joy-filled immersive experience. 

“I want to create a space that becomes normal, or normalize space, where Black artists do not have to be the truth-tellers all the time. Have the privileges of just working and creating and having self-exploration and not the position of being the wake-up call for the liberal,” said Adams. “Because that’s something that some artists may want to do but that should not be the given task for the Black artists.”

Despite the complexity of the themes and exchange between the two artists’ work, there is a simplicity in moving through the colorful dreamscape-like exhibition. “Dreams and possibility and adaptation have a long history of strength and resilience in the Black community that continues,” said Bozicnik. “And the show is affirming of that.”

Though many of the fantastical pieces in this exhibition are inspired by imagined spaces dreamt up by the artists, the themes and takeaways are rooted in the real world.

“​​I hope that my work in Packaged Black helps to show our audience how we have walked along the timeline of our history in this country, picking up a shape, style, or color, an inventiveness that has allowed us to remain whole, even in the face of attempted obliteration,” said Thomas.

Packaged Black is on view at the Henry Art Gallery through May 1, 2022.

Nina Dubinsky (she/they) is a South Seattle-based freelance writer and artist with a passion for all things art, food, and internet. Keep up with them on Instagram @nocturnina.

📸 Featured Image: Installation view of “Packaged Black: Derrick Adams and Barbara Earl Thomas,” 2021, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. (Photo: Jueqian Fang, courtesy of the Henry Art Gallery)

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