Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
Adean 06

BLACK SEMIOTICS

On view at Greene Naftali through 12 June 2021, Aria Dean’s work (American, b. 1993, lives and works in New York) will be the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at REDCAT, Los Angeles (June 2021), travelling to the Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneve in 2022.

Interview by Hanna Girma
HGA lot of your work highlights the darkness tied to natural elements, but also their connections to the South and your family. The kudzu plants you’re working with now feel a bit different. They seem to embrace the wildness of the plant rather than its racial ties. Can you talk about this relationship?
ADI was initially attracted to water, cotton, red clay, and kudzu because they bear a relationship to blackness and legacies of slavery in the American, transatlantic, and possibly even global cultural imaginary, while also being quite elemental. I’m interested in the gap between the specificity of their cultural presence, the charge they have when connected to me as a black woman, and the utter banality with which they circulate in other contexts. They don’t matter so much as specific materials, more as vectors through which to explore the semiotic and material life of blackness.
HGI was reminded of when we last spoke about how people truly grasp at straws to connect the work of Black artists. Do you think this has gotten better or worse?
ADI’d say this situation has worsened honestly. A few years ago it felt like there was this intense call to make work that dealt with blackness, identity, offering some perspective on what it’s like to be black or a “black POV” on other things. Now it seems like it’s extra authoritarian; no matter what you do it has to be tethered to these things. Worst of all, it’s never about an investigation what these things mean or how they’re operating. Post-George Floyd, there’s an obvious intensification of the non-black western world’s obsession with blackness, and now it’s excusable and simply more profitable than ever! (Target’s Black History Month collection, for instance). If there can be an intelligent assessment of blackness and contemporary politics in the form of a public exhibition, I welcome it! But most are in some form of bad faith at the moment.
HGWhile there’s a lot of theory behind your work, the objects themselves generally invite the viewer to construct their own narrative. But in your case most of the time the viewer is left feeling foolish. Are you striving for more accessibility in any way?
ADI spent a lot of time trying to fuck with audiences out of a frustration with how both my work and I were received. This sort of “call out” instead of “theorize” or simply “think” expectation haunted me for years. And with the physical work, there was a palpable expectation that I was thinking through, and challenging preconceived notions of blackness, so I tried to dodge and weave to get across the fact that I had no preconceptions, and potentially no conceptions at all, insofar as I really do believe blackness’ only true defining features to be its flexibility, voidedness, and sheer velocity or power. The work I’ve made this year is a lot more personal and direct, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less sarcastic, barbed, or unforgiving either.
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HGYou were playing with this idea of Black Fascism for your show at REDCAT. Is this a call for a new ruling black elite? Or more of a call to end liberalism? How is it playing into your recent thinking?
ADIt’s not a call for a ruling black elite, and it’s only partially a call for an end to a staid moderate position around black politics. It’s, at its most theoretically sound, an inversion, but also just a funny grenade of a phrase to signal the idea of remaking a nation in the image of blackness. So, black fascism is a big question mark about the intersection of aesthetics and politics, not a program or political position that I in any way support.
HGWhat are you working on now?
ADI’m finishing these two shows. One at Greene Naftali, and one at REDCAT, both of which open in the spring. Once those are done, I’m going to focus on some film projects. I took a job as a Creative Development Executive at SunHaus, Arthur Jafa’s new film company, earlier this year. Makayla Bailey and I have been also been working on a TV show. I’ll hopefully be shooting some stuff of my own later on in 2021 and early 2022, if the fates allow.
HGHow are you bringing your curatorial and artistic practice into this new role at SunHaus? You have been working on playwriting and filmmaking for awhile now, but this is somewhat of a shift.
ADIt feels like a natural shift, but yes the work is quite different! It’s a lot more research and ideation which is really exciting to me. Working at the scale of narrative film and television is a challenge, but one that I’ve been aching for a while now.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Olunkwa.

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