The ideas come in his dreams. He’ll be prodded awake at 3 a.m. by yet another irony, another striking parallelism, another image. And, again, artist Colin Quashie will make his way to the computer and juxtapose slave shackles, or maybe a whip or rope or ball and chain, with some figure of historical significance.
It started with Harriet Tubman.
“She thought slaveholders would go to heaven,” Quashie said, referring to a bit of enlightening information he discovered in an article about the proposed new $20 bill meant to feature Tubman. The famed abolitionist had explained that the slavers “don’t know better.” Though far more fortunate than the people they exploited and abused, they, too, were entrapped by an ineluctable economic system. “They acts up to the light they have,” she had said.
That left an impression on the artist.
“Considering what she had seen, the life she had led, to have that level of empathy is just mind-blowing,” Quashie said.
So he gave her rose-colored glasses made from slave shackles.
The series of photo illustrations is called “Linked.” He meant to make just one or two. Quashie’s made 11 so far. And he’s not done. He’s letting inspiration — dreams — guide his progress.
“Art wakes you up,” he said.
And his art wakes us up.
Quashie, a full-time nurse at the Medical University Hospital, has been making provocative art for decades. Nearly all of it is rooted in a history of social and economic injustice, often referring to the black experience in America. In 2010, he created a large mural called “Service” for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, featuring veterans of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins and numerous black historical figures from North Carolina.
The Columbia Museum of Art acquired his “Plantation Monopoly” piece in December 2016. It is part of a dynamic, multifaceted, ongoing “Plantation” series he first showed at Redux Contemporary Art Center in 2012.
Quashie is a favorite at the annual ArtFields competition in Lake City. He has won two People’s Choice prizes, most recently for his large-scale painting “Plantation Tree of Life,” a portrait of an elderly African-American couple displaying a large collard leaf.
His work is notable for its combination of pristine technique, witty titles, explicit social and political commentary and wide-ranging use of various media. Quashie is an accomplished portrait painter, but he's also a print maker, sculptor and maker of assemblage using everyday objects such as sardine cans.
He has little patience for figures he perceives as "Uncle Toms" or "Aunt Jemimas," and a low tolerance for the misuse of black history or the failure to recognize and represent the brutality endured by African Americans.
A former sonar man in the U.S. Navy and sketch comedy writer for “MADtv” and “The Orlando Jones Show,” Quashie has remained true to his artistic vision, despite censorship and marginalization within the visual art marketplace.
Four of the new works are part of a new exhibition at the I.P Stanback Museum on the campus of S.C. State University called "Epiphanies: Art, Image and Insight," on view through Jan. 25. The entire series will be shown at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art from Aug. 23 through Dec. 14, 2019.
After the Tubman piece, he made an image of a black nanny holding a white baby, with shackles superimposed like a hard-wire brassiere. (That one’s called “Blacktose Tolerant.”)
“The only thing that mattered was her breasts,” he said. “The nanny and child were shackled together.”
Once he got going with the “Linked” series, Quashie began to discern a larger historical narrative that spans the centuries, he said. But what image should serve as the starting point?
He portrayed George Washington, who is known to have had dental problems, with an overlaid set of teeth likely pulled from the mouths of his slaves. It was with this set of teeth that Washington delivered his inaugural presidential address, according to Kathryn Gehred, a research specialist at the University of Virginia. Quashie had his narrative beginning. (That one’s called “Smile.”)
To factor in Christianity, which for so long was used to justify slavery, Quashie combined an image of Jesus with that of an iron collar featuring three extensions with metal bells hanging from them. The collar was locked around the necks of runaway slaves, or those who posed a flight risk. The three bells refer to the Trinity, the artists said. (This piece is called “Lord and Slavior.”)
Then other ideas sprung up: “Sell to Cell,” which is about “slavery by another name” and mass incarceration; “Whupped Him!” which portrays black Jack Johnson, the champion boxer who gained fame during the height of Jim Crow; one featuring Louis Armstrong with ankle shackles superimposed upon his trumpet to point out how black music — spirituals which begat the blues which begat jazz — has its origins in slavery. (That one is called “Gabriel.”)
And since he was referencing music, why not include sports? So Quashie made an image of Jackie Robinson sliding into home with a ball and chain slipping off his ankle. (That one’s called “Steal Away Home.”)
There’s one of Martin Luther King Jr. called “Servant.” There’s one of Colin Kaepernick called “Shhhhhhackled.” There’s one of Kayne West called “Cracked Rear View.”
“Now I really had a connection going between past and present,” Quashie said.
Tyrone Geter, a Midlands artist who retired from teaching at Benedict College recently, has long admired Quashie’s work. The two men are friends who often bounce ideas off one another.
“I consider myself extremely lucky (to know Quashie),” Geter said. “It has allowed me to have someone who thought in some ways like I do. We’re very frank with each other about what we’re doing.”
Geter, whose work was featured in a show called “Enduring Spirit” at the Columbia Museum of Art in the spring of 2017, conveys a strong sense of identity, conflict, beauty and history through striking large-scale portraits and populated landscapes. Geter said he strives to speak to everyone, and therefore avoids overt political commentary. But he loves his friend’s artistic courage.
“He smacks you hard,” Geter said. “Mine is more subtle. I’m hoping to learn something from him. He just puts together elements I wouldn’t have thought to put together like that.”
Geter, too, relies on his subconscious to guide him, he said.
“When I’m working a series, I don’t think about what’s next, so I don’t know when the series stops until it stops.”
And that’s his advice to Quashie.
“Why stop at five, there could be 20 more. When it finishes, it finishes. I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface of what he’s able to do. I’m hoping it ends up enough for one show. I think it’s going to be quite powerful.”
Sandra Campbell, a friend, civic activist and tour guide in Charleston, said the “Linked” series is dramatic, perhaps traumatic, and quintessential Quashie.
She’s known the artist for 20 years, and has admired his refusal to succumb to commercial forces and his insistence on creating art that makes you think, she said.
“I love art that speaks to me, that has a message,” Campbell said. “And all of his work has a message. It might take you a minute to get it. ... It’s political, it educates, it tells a story of our history, and it does it through this universal language.”
Now, he’s on a roll, she added.
“He’s coming into his own with this series,” Campbell said. “A lot of people don’t want to think of slavery.” But it’s linked to every aspect of the black experience. “What he’s done basically is put it in your face. ... He’s a great artist. He believes in himself, he believes in his art.”
There remain historical gaps in the “Linked” series. Reconstruction. The World War II period. The 1960s and ’70s. The Reagan era.
Who knows how it will end, or how many pieces he will make. Maybe a few more, maybe dozens, maybe 100.
Quashie will find out in his sleep.
In the meantime, another quote from Harriet Tubman rings in his head:
"I've heard 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' read, and I tell you Mrs. Stowe's pen hasn't begun to paint what slavery is as I have seen it at the far South,” Tubman said of the famous 1852 novel by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. “I've seen de real thing, and I don't want to see it on no stage or in no theater.”