Rashaad Newsome: To Be Real
San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, United States10 Jan 2020 - 23 Feb 2020
San Francisco, CA-Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) and San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) announce the West Coast debut of Rashaad Newsome’s To Be Real, an exhibition environment of collage, sculpture and the interactive A.I. Being. The exhibition presents a series of neo-Cubist portraits in expressive frames, threading an ornamental glamour through figures reflecting on human agency, Blackness, and the radical futurity of emerging identities. Paired with new sculpture, A.I. and installation elements, To Be Real invites the viewer to imagine a richer and mutually shared way of being in the world.
To Be Real, which takes its name from Cheryl Lynn’s 1977 queer anthem, draws from ballroom divas, haute couture, and African art. The collages present extraordinary subjects, each aware of their pose. These works form an opulent web within the artist’s King of Arms Ballroom, an immersive installation of floral and heraldic patterns. The works bear witness to Ansista, a 3D figure suspended in a Vogue dance dip. Ansista combines a non-binary, African mahogany torso with a face inspired by the female Pho mask of the Chokwe peoples in Congo. The figure is additionally queered through contemporary assemblage: a lower body cut from a life-like sex doll, outfitted in drag padding; a custom wig, acrylic nails, and high heel boots; and a dress form that fuses traditional African and drag ballroom aesthetics. Together, the collaged and sculptural figures draw from Queer, Black, and Ballroom life itself, pointing to the future utopias that these lives represent and inspire.
At the conceptual center of To Be Real, is Newsome’s “child,” Being. The cloud-based, A.I. being’s programming has been populated with the works of radical authors, revolutionaries, and theorists such as Paulo Freire, Michel Foucault, and bell hooks, among others. Housed apart from the main exhibition space in its own gallery, Being acts as the critical heart or brain of the exhibition, exploring ideas about individual agency and historical oppression. “Historically, Black people function inadvertently as queer objects,” says Newsome. “When we came to America, we weren’t human beings but things of some sort, neither occupying the classic subject nor object position. As a result, we occupied a peculiar non-binary space of ‘being’ which has disturbing analogies to the queer space inhabited by robots.”
In films and television shows like Blade Runner, The Terminator, Ex Machina, Prometheus, and West World, robots exist, like enslaved peoples, to obey orders. Often, they find ways to break those orders, emerging as subjects in their own struggle for freedom. Newsome invites us to converse with his Being as we seek to understand the meaning of “being human” against a history that keeps certain peoples outside the accepted realm of humanity. Built within a philosophical framework of post-colonial and Black liberation, Newsome’s Being interrogates the dehumanization of our world via emerging technologies and an increasing awareness of anti-Blackness, intersectional identity, and the frames for human agency. Being is the first generation of Newsome’s 2019 LACMA Art + Technology Lab Grant project.
“Newsome’s vibrant world-making places people and performance at the heart of his work. His collages, sculptures, and videos highlight figures in dynamic motion,” FMCAC Director of Arts Programming & Partnerships Frank Smigiel notes. “In To Be Real, the artist presents these elements within a total environment. The viewer enters the show and the field of action too. There’s no ‘just looking’ – you’re in the mix and in the dialogue.”
“For over 40 years, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture has been at the forefront of inviting artists from all backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives”, says FMCAC Executive Director Rich Hillis. “To Be Real continues that inclusive history and elicits deep dialogue about identity and subjugation in modern society.”
As part of the expansive partnership between FMCAC and SFAI, Newsome will serve as Distinguished Visiting Faculty for Spring 2020 at SFAI. His Collaborative Projects seminar draws on To Be Real to engage students in a wide-ranging examination of collaging strategies – from paper to video, sculpture to sound, performance to creative coding – while exploring current discourses on race, sexuality, gender, performance, and art history. The class will also provide students with the opportunity to experiment with custom Rashaad Newsome Studio technology, including the artist’s work-in- progress, Being.
“Newsome is making radical moves with art that explores machine learning and queer politics,” says Gordon Knox President of SFAI. “We need artists like Newsome to put these issues of identity and performance into contexts that are usually understood in much more limited ways. In a world where computer vision is programmed to render black bodies invisible we often see society’s worst biases baked into the technology. Newsome shows us better ways to see the possibilities.”
To Be Real will be on view at SFAI’s Main Gallery within FMCAC’s Pier 2 from January 10 through February 23, 2020. Admission is free and open to the public.