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I, Too: On Space & Ceramics

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I grew up in the city. I hit pavement and asphalt every day. I am a part of this time and do not see myself being from anywhere else. My work has been a series of tests and trials. I ‘ve been making and building, tearing down and trying again for as long as I can remember. At 12, I found ceramics, since then I’ve made pottery, bowls, plates, cups, oblong pieces that were then frozen by fire, both robust and fragile objects alike.

I feel that there will be a revolution soon. I want to be apart of it all. I am participating. The intention in my practice is to break the cultural rules that have been developed by Eurocentrism, colonialism, and imperialism. I have a hope of ushering in new perceptions of participation, engagement, and understanding.  My aim is to navigate materials, forms, and knowledge so that I may find a contemporary path for engagement in and out of modernist constructs and ideologies in a way that centers themes of resistance, and resilience.

Resistance    

Noun

  1. The refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.
  2. The ability to be affected by something, especially adversely.

Resilience

Noun

  1. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
  2. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity

My and my country’s past has led me to look at history as a jumping off point, how can change be evoked without repeating the realities that put us in the positions we are in? So at the nucleus of my practice is a battle with and resistance to white supremacy and segregation. These are not the limits to the pressures that I am dealing with, but they are some of the strongest. My resistance and refusal to conform come from knowing that there are better ways to exist. My resilience comes from having dreams!  So when I work, a crucial part of that work is exhibition: a context for engagement where resistance and resilience come into convergence. With each piece, series, show, I mirror the natural cycles all around me, and survive and thrive through them.

I use these processes to be a voice in the dialogue for myself and for all people who cannot be heard. In response to the times were in someone has to stand up for what is right. Charles Baudelaire said it best in The Painter of Modern life, “as an artist you make work that reflects the time in which you live.” So I pursue my interests in history and liberation to respond to the wider dialogue of contemporary culture.  I make work to explore the act of making but just as importantly as protest or argument. I recently saw Get Out, which was a great example of a Black Man as the protagonist. He stood up for himself despite the environment he was in. In turn, how do we break free of toxic environments? I use my work to be that push for me.

I’ve most recently completed a series called “Undocumented.” This work is comprised of 12 different installations, which grew out of my interest in historical objects, challenging the established perceptions of color, and the relationship to cultural and social structure. Ceramic production is a major part of a lot of cultural traditions. In this series, I wanted to comment on contemporary art and ceramics by reorganizing how the viewer interacts with the work. It began as an exercise to get my hands working and mind moving conceptually and then turned into a way to engage a discourse more critically than I had in the past. I started with the question: what does it mean to be a community and see your values reflected in the space in which you live and work? As a start, I aimed for that to be the gathering point around the work. As a black man who is subject and witness to systemic oppression, I see other black men, black women, other people of color, queer, and non-gender conforming people keep getting attacked. And so through the work that is uniquely mine to do, I’ve poured my confusion, anger, helplessness and frustration into these large installations.

One of those installations “Before and After Sundown Town,” is a sculpture comprised of two structures that are 5.5 feet tall by 10 feet deep and 3.5 feet wide. The work is about the transition of time. As the viewer walks through the installation, the structures isolate them, and they are forced to deal directly with their reflection against the presence of the work. It’s a presence of all the time that it took to be produced but also to ask the viewer to consider their social position and its implication. My hope is that the viewers peering into the surface of the objects can see themselves and reflect on how where they are situated within the content. The height is to reflect being above the arrogance and hate as well as attributing an often suppressed worth to ‘other.’ To invoke this I attempted to make the wall and the structure, and the objects altogether blend into each other, to drop the lines between object and environment. It’s as much part of the space as in it. The intention is to show that the historical and contemporary struggle is still present and we though are moving through it; we’re just importantly crucial to its momentum.  

Being a part of this momentum has lead to my most recent and ongoing project, the work: Soul Sitters. These large-scale works are referencing different storage vessels and objects from all over the world that was used to draw water, to hold liquids for shipping, and trade, yet are no longer used for that function. They’re now ‘art history’ activated by the viewer engaging their presence, seeing their color and form, and viewing themselves as separate from both the objects and their function, often with the effect of distancing themselves from the story and historical function of the objects themselves. In response, through Soul Sitters, I aim to create space and objects where Blackness always has a presence and always will, and the history of it is inexorably connected to how viewers engage them.

Each Soul Sitter sculpture is unique and has a raised texture that is created with the impression of my thumb. I reference those works to help engage history but also to make them a part of the now, to tell a larger narrative. The texture and process of making are to align the many objects made across cultures and times as referenceable within the context of a specific cultural vantage point. Each of these large sculptures sits on a rug made from a photograph being processed into a jacquard loom producing a photographic image. By combining the ceramics vessels and the rug, metaphorically the vessel can infer or signify a body. They have interiors that are black to allow the space to be limitless and infinite. This space seeks to challenge White supremacy and colonial language segregating communities of brown and black people. The Soul and infinite that I aim to attain and share within this work is the strength that it takes to push beyond any obstacle and continue to persevere as a community and culture!

Growing up within the circumstances that I did, and now in the place that I live, both I and my work have chosen and been forced to make enormous transitions. I cannot see myself living in any other time. It’s a reminder that our histories are inherited, and they directly inform our sense of community. In response, I hope to use my history as a way to adjust and question how that shows up for us as a society what we can do about it. Finding a place for myself and other POC to be a part of the conversation is also not just on my mind but an active motivation. Together we can re-adjust and rearrange how we see histories, to collaboratively make a better future. 

I keep working, I keep evaluating, trying as much as I can. Soon there will be a paradigm shift, and I want to be a part of it. At least by speaking, walking, working, and adding any force that I can to help make the world safer for everyone. With the current social, cultural, political issues I feel that I need to keep balancing the toll that has been added to my life emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The main context in which I can do this is through my work. As each of the dynamics in the world evolves or shifts so too do I and my work, it takes on more nuance, becomes more complex, in a striving to honor the passing of experience and not to turn away from what’s in front of us but facing it without fear.

About the Author:

Kahlil Robert Irving is a multimedia artist. He recently completed his undergraduate degree at the Kansas City Art Institute, double major in Art History and Ceramics. Currently, he is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. At Washington University, Irving is a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow. He was recently a resident artist at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice, Italy, in the summer 2016. He has work in the collections of the Riga Porcelain Museum, in Riga, Latvia; The Ken Ferguson Teaching Collection at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, Foundation for Contemporary Ceramic Art in Kecskemet, Hungary.

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