Mining the Past, Mirroring the Present
Adrienne Elise Tarver’s art explores perceptions of Black women
In Adrienne Elise Tarver’s Three Graces, a trio of women stand together in naked repose. Surrounded by sugarcane and banana and pineapple trees, they lean into each other: hands gripping hands, arms and heads resting on shoulders. It’s a seemingly peaceful scene—but the inspiration for the painting is mired in racism. Three Graces is based on a photo Tarver (CFA’07) found online showing Black women who were exhibited in Europe in the 19th or early 20th century. In Tarver’s painting, the women’s expressions are solemn and shadows of palm fronds slash across their shoulders and faces, reminiscent of the bars of a cage; the foliage covers turquoise boxy forms, suggesting a constructed background.
“There were human zoos all around Europe and America throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Tarver, an interdisciplinary artist whose work has been shown across the world and lauded by publications like the New York Times and Brooklyn Magazine. “We understand how wrong that situation is and how exploitative it is, and yet the way the women were posed, it reminded me of so many images I had seen through my entire education, which had been sculpted and painted by mostly European men.”
Tarver was particularly reminded of postimpressionist Paul Gauguin’s exoticized and idealized depictions of French Polynesia and the women who lived there. She says the trope of the sexualized tropical seductress is one that has influenced the perception of modern Black women that she has explored in much of her art.
“My work for the past five years has really been about Black female identity within the Western landscape,” she says. For Tarver, Black femininity of the past and present are inseparable. “I was thinking about the dualities of how we have been made to exist within this context, from this domestic, silenced figure who’s supposed to fade into the background to this oversexualized tropical seductress on display, and figuring out the narrative to give women in these spaces more agency.”
Three Graces debuted in January 2020 in Escape, an exhibition of Tarver’s work at Victori + Mo, a contemporary art gallery in New York City. The exhibition showed how the history of colonialism continues to impact Black women, with its lush tropical landscapes, vacation photos, and cruise ads, as well as images of human suffering and exploitation.
“I was thinking about the duality of the word ‘escape,’” says Tarver, who centered the exhibition on the tourism industry and its roots in slavery and colonialism. “Sandals resorts and all of these vacation places, they all use ‘escape’ in their ads. The idea that you’re escaping your normal life, you get to go visit this place for a moment and forget everything. It just felt so ironic, because, ultimately, these places were built upon slave labor. The people who were creating these seductive landscapes that everyone is trying to escape to would have loved to escape to freedom.”
Escape also included a projected installation of tropical vacation photographs from the ’60s and ’70s. Tarver says she wanted to play with the feelings of nostalgia the photos provoked.
“It’s easy to fall into the warm, fuzzy feeling of memory with that, and as you walk down this narrow hallway, there are these collages juxtaposing ads for cruise ships and resorts with historical imagery of plantation workers, domestic help, and slave ships, so it’s clear that this more lighthearted thing is not as it seems.”
The first painting viewers saw as they entered Escape was Head Above Water, which shows a woman’s legs dangling as she floats in sunlit water. Her crisp white bathing suit bottom contrasts with her brown legs. In her review of the show, New York Times art critic Jillian Steinhauer said when she first saw the painting, it suggested “glamorous freedom,” but after seeing the slideshow and works like Three Graces, “instead of seeing a scene of luxury, I imagined one of the women swimming to freedom.”
Art and identity
Photography has long been an important part of Tarver’s art. While Three Graces was influenced by a photograph she found online, much of her earlier work was inspired by family photos—in particular those of her older brother. He died when she was 16.
“I painted a lot of photos of him, of him and me, of my family,” she says. “I went to a summer program at the Art Institute of Chicago and made this series of 16 small paintings all arranged together of different parts of my brother’s life.”
Although Tarver had initially thought of architectural design as a potential outlet for her creativity, her brother’s death prompted a fresh look at her plans. “I was really understanding how short life is,” she says. “I really don’t know if I would have pursued art if that hadn’t have happened.”
At CFA, Tarver shifted away from portraits of her family—“I couldn’t separate how people talked about the art from what I felt about my family”—and began to use her art to explore what it meant to be Black and female in America.
“I got a bunch of old silver platters and silver serving things and I started doing a lot of self-portraits. I balanced the tray on my head with the objects, taking on this character of a house servant. I was diving into this history of who I was to America—the domestic woman.”
Now associate chair of fine arts at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Ga., Tarver says her identity as a Black woman continues to be essential to her work. “It’s not possible to separate my experience as a Black woman from my art,” she says, “because so much of my art is about my experience.”
Escape closed on March 14, 2020, around when New York placed coronavirus-related restrictions on its residents. While Tarver had some downtime in the wake of her exhibition closing, the uncertainty of coronavirus and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests have inspired her to explore the ideas present in the exhibition, as well as what the future means to Black people.
“The longer we were in this situation, the more unknown it became, I thought a lot about fortune-telling and tarot,” says Tarver, who began studying the stories of—and attitudes toward—Black women like famed New Orleans Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and TV psychic Miss Cleo. “There’s this idea of the Black woman holding some sort of deep wisdom or mythology, so there’s always a separation between this world and their world. In a moment where there’s so much uncertainty, I think people fall back to religion or astrology, just because nobody else can tell them real answers.”
It’s not possible to separate my experience as a Black woman from my art, because so much of my art is about my experience.
This summer, Tarver started making her own tarot cards. Using ink, oil pastel, and colored pencil, she created a series of vibrantly colored images inspired by Afrofuturist ideas and imagery of the tropics. The titles of the works share the names of cards typically found in a tarot deck, such as High Priestess and Chariot. In Strength, a woman sits perched on an elephant’s trunk. Both woman and elephant are painted in washy ink, starkly contrasting with the bold yellow sky behind them and the bright blue ground beneath them, which is thickly built up with pastel. Tarver will eventually make these images into a printed deck of cards.
“It was this understanding that saying that we exist in the future—that there’s a future for Black people—is actually a radical statement,” says Tarver. “This idea of projecting futures, of telling fortunes, is a radical idea in and of itself, and telling somebody that you will exist tomorrow is a really heavy statement when you are consumed with how unpredictable life can be.”
This article was originally published in CFA Magazine.