By: Jennifer Higgie
Like most kids, I grew up with very few real role models. The thing I always wanted to be was an athlete: first a football player, then a baseball player like my cousin, Don Buford. But when I was diagnosed with a benign tumour and had to have a metal plate put in my head in the 11th grade, I gave that dream up. My mother always told me ‘put your best foot forward’, so I tried acting, then I tried something else and eventually I started painting and that was largely because of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez who had their own comic book called Love and Rockets (1982–96). In junior high school I began making art and I simply returned to the subject or thing in life I loved the most – well, almost the most.
Not that I’m well known or anything, but the fact that I’m black (and there’s not that many of us) and have had some exposure doesn’t automatically mean that I’ll be included in ‘art-historical conversation’. If you’re not relevant, no-one’s going to give a damn. Being relevant, I feel, has perhaps given me some access to Tupac, Biggie, Gil Scott-Heron, Lead Belly, Basquiat, David Hammons, Kendrick Lamar (my daughter Jade likes Kendrick and so do I), Miles – black artists who were and are relevant and bring something to the ‘art-historical’ table where people often do a lot of talking.
I like the term ‘figurative painter’ more than some of the things I’ve been called (that’s if you’re trying to label me a figurative painter). I make all types of paintings that have figures in them but the figure is behind bars or walking a pitbull or a mastiff, like in my work Walking with Vito (2008). Or, for example, I made a painting about my grandfather, Ardmore Taylor, who everyone called Mo, and who trained horses in Texas. He’s sitting on a porch with a pistol and shotgun, alluding to the lifestyle he lived as well as died: he was shot at the age of 33 in 1933. Years earlier, he had his arm shot off as a result of some white people trying to steal his horses. My grandmother poured kerosene on his arm and bandaged it up and he got on his horse to look for the folks who tried to rob him. He was ambushed and killed on a dark road in Texas and my father (an only child, who was nine at the time) went with my grandmother and picked up his body and took him home. I know the story well because my father would drink and often call me in the middle of the night; maybe he was woken up by the memory of that night, but he’d call out as if the incident was taking place right then. There are six boys in my family; I’m the youngest and whenever my dad introduced us to his friends he’d say: ‘Meet my bullets.’ He was referring to the last three, as we were close in age; the older three I never hung with. So, I try to say a little more, i.e. I paint a figure, but often times there’s more to it. It’s like a JUNGLE SOMETIMES.
What role does politics play in my work? Well, you talking to me? This is America and if you’re black in America it’s easy for politics to permeate your work. As a journalism student, I developed a habit of reading every page of the newspaper looking for source material for my art works. I did a painting called Homage to a Brother (2007) after reading about a young African-American brother named Sean Bell who was murdered. I didn’t know when or if I’d even use an image of him, but I did. I woke up one morning before a show I had at the Studio Museum in Harlem and picked up the newspaper clipping and said to myself, ‘that could have been my son, or my nephew’, but I felt it was the thing to do since I was going to New York and Sean was from Queens and was passionate about baseball. That was my green light. Represent Baby Baabay! My show last year at Blum & Poe was inspired by my life, and those around me and those before me. In one room I painted portraits of black sharecroppers, but there was a door with ‘Principal’s Office’ on it, as that’s where I received my early indoctrination to being treated unfairly, as the teacher always found a reason to send me to the office or put me in the closet as punishment. The last room in that exhibition was the ‘Probation Office’. This is what I know – and a lot of black males know – about incarceration. So, my life is political and full of love. Dear momma!
My community means a lot to me. If I made abstract paintings I would get no love from my family or peeps. I can easily elaborate but I think by now if anyone’s reading this article they know ‘Brenda’s got a baby’. (That’s a song by Tupac.)