André Leon Gray – self-taught, African-American, born and raised in the South – isn’t your average artist. His paintings and mixed media assemblages present a chopped and screwed version of American history and black identity, but one that’s alternately witty, reflective and heartfelt.
Give us an introduction to your art.
My work celebrates, critiques, and questions the world around us, and has actually predicted a future event, such as the election of President Obama in my 2007 tar painting ‘The Audacity of Victory’. The piece originally posed the question if America was ready for a black President. Even after the election, it still remains a question. I try to focus on issues that have a long-lasting impact.
You’re based in Raleigh, North Carolina – what’s the art scene there like?
There are plenty of artists who should be selling their work, but there are not enough galleries to showcase them and collectors to buy challenging work. Some non-profit venues like the NC Museum of Art have made contemporary art more accessible, and there are commercial galleries as well. It’s trying, but it’s no where near the thriving art scene of a major US city.
You call your work as “eye gumbo” – could you elaborate?
Eye gumbo is a visual meal for the mind, thickened with a roux of black culture, marinated in social commentary and seasoned with consciousness. Eye gumbo can encompass various mediums, such as tar paintings, assemblages, collages, drawings, installations, photography and short films to create a thought-provoking experience.
You’ve got such a strong voice as an African-American artist. Do you ever feel like you get pushed into a specific niche?
I don’t feel that way, but I know it’s commonplace to try to categorise and label artistic output in order to define it. My work may address issues facing the African-American community, but it also speaks to a diverse audience. Strong voices have power that can create dialogue, regardless of its niche.
Your work’s already a part of the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art. What did that mean to you?
As a kid, I was constantly creating and drawing things. My path was given to me. For some time when I was working full-time, I didn’t focus on my gift, because it’s a struggle to be an artist without a silver spoon in your mouth. Eventually, I saw the movie Basquiat and it inspired me with the possibility of success if one stays with that gift, as long as you stay level-headed and strong. When I finally saw my piece ‘Black Magic (It’s Fantastic)’ [above] mounted to the wall of the NCMA in the African gallery, I knew that I chose the right path. Museums are institutions that decide which works of art should be included in the timeline of art history. It’s like getting the official stamp of approval, but you should ask me again in three years.
What are some of the current affairs you explore in your art?
I’ve been concerned with the “dumbing down” of America through popular music and its imagery, particularly so-called hip hop (which isn’t the same genre I grew up with) and also the state of the U.S. public school system. I created a series of collages that examined the objectification of women and the hyper-sexualized thug imagery in music videos. The undertone of my work usually addresses how power structures affect the paths that people follow.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve acquired a HDSLR, so I want to explore certain themes through short films. Stanley Kubrick is a big influence on my approach; I love the details he places within his films.
Words: Heike Dempster