For Derek Fordjour, creating art is not only an act of individual expression, but also a catalyst for building community and transforming lives. A painter, sculptor, and installation artist whose work has been embraced by some of the most revered institutions of the U.S. contemporary art world, Fordjour is also notable in his commitment to making art as widely accessible as possible, whether through designing public art projects, helping shape a community program that supports people accused of minor crimes, or encouraging young artists in his hometown. His works often celebrate the traditions of communities, while also acknowledging the pressures individuals face in performing their roles therein.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, as the son of parents who had emigrated from Ghana, Fordjour fell in love with art at a young age. The adults in his life nurtured this enthusiasm, and he found inspiration everywhere. As a child, Fordjour and his brother would explore the corridors of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which adjoined the campus where their father practiced as an oral surgeon, and admire the colorful artwork that adorned the walls. Later, his high school art teacher became an important mentor, and Fordjour headed to art school in New York after graduating. Yet despite this early certainty about his life’s passion, Fordjour’s trajectory did not remain so linear, and only with years of life experience would he fully “find his voice” as an artist. He left college to return home and work for a few years, before enrolling at Morehouse College, a prestigious historically Black college in Atlanta. There, he found the sense of community and artistic tradition that his first entry into higher education had not provided. After graduating, he went on to earn a master’s degree in art education at Harvard. He returned to New York and in his late thirties began an MFA in painting at Hunter College; by the time he received his degree in 2016, his solo shows were receiving significant critical attention. His work has been exhibited in venues including Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Nasher Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and appears in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Whitney, LACMA, and elsewhere. In 2018 he was commissioned to create an eight-panel permanent installation for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City at the 145th Street and Lenox Avenue subway station, parts of which can be seen in this issue’s portfolio. Fordjour is the Alex Katz Chair at Cooper Union and serves as a Core Critic at Yale University School of Art.
Fordjour came to prominence with his large-scale portraits of athletes and other performers; his MFA thesis was titled “An Aesthetic Theory of Gamesmanship.” Whether painted alone or in groups, these subjects usually appear in the costume of those at the center of highly ritualized endeavors that provide audiences thrilling, often cathartic experiences—parades, sporting events, carnivals, and other iconic American traditions. But while the pageantry that these works depict in vibrant colors may be experienced on first glance as purely joyful or celebratory, Fordjour also explores the psychological toll exacted on the subjects in their quest for achievement and the systemic inequalities that Black Americans face even in these elite arenas, revealing a more complex portrait of the labor leading up to a crowd’s delight. Fordjour notes that his interest lies less in the literal trappings of games or festivals than in the metaphors they generate, yet the visual details of football uniforms or feathered headdresses, winners’ podiums or swimming-pool flags do hold resonance as magical objects within American visual vocabulary, with the power to transform those who encounter them. The paintings, virtuosic displays of Fordjour’s skill and imagination, begin with layers of newspaper and colored paper patterned in repeating shapes being built up on top of each other. He then cuts and tears into these strata and develops a scene with acrylic paint, charcoal, oil pastel, foil, or even glitter as the composition demands, resulting in intricately textured, highly personal final canvases.
Fordjour’s exhibitions themselves also offer immersive experiences, often featuring installations and performances that extend his paintings’ themes. With SELF MUST DIE at the Petzel Gallery, Fordjour’s latest, his interest in community rituals takes a new expression as he responds to the devastations of the coronavirus pandemic and the longer epidemic of racist violence against Black Americans that manifested so visibly in the murder of George Floyd. The show centers on a series of powerful paintings of Black funeral rites. As in his other work, the subjects are often splendidly arrayed, whether in choir robes or vestments, or in the gorgeous suits and top hats of the six men in Pall Bearers, doing honor to the lives of the deceased they are mourning. Pall Bearers was inspired by George Floyd’s funeral procession in Houston, where he was carried to his final resting place in a casket finished in gold. In the room where these paintings were displayed, visitors could view the works from a wooden church pew in the center of the room, painted with the traditional Christian commandment Do This in Remembrance of Me, a particularly poignant line in this context.
Even while maintaining a demanding studio practice and travel schedule, Fordjour continues to prioritize art education, especially opportunities for people to connect with art outside of traditional academic settings. In 2017, he and Shaun Leonardo were the first teaching artists to participate in Project Reset, a New York City initiative that diverted young people arrested for low-level offenses away from court and into a workshop setting where they could express themselves artistically and reflect on larger issues of justice and responsibility through dialogues about art. The program has expanded and is now provided in partnership with the Brooklyn Museum, with Fordjour and Leonardo continuing to serve as consultants. Fordjour also continues to advocate for arts education in Memphis, where he founded the Contemporary Art Memphis summer fellowship program for young artists, which will accept its first applicants this fall.
Derek Fordjour and I spoke on the phone in early July; highlights of our conversation (lightly edited by both of us) appear below.
C. J. Bartunek
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C. J. Bartunek (CJB): We’re talking soon after the Fourth of July, traditionally a time of various patriotic displays, though today complicated feelings around the holiday are more prominent than they’ve been in the recent past, and I was thinking about some of your paintings. In a Daily Memphian story about you, you mentioned the city’s tradition of parades. For those who haven’t experienced them, would you tell us some of your memories of the parades you saw growing up?
Derek Fordjour (DF): We had a big Cotton Carnival parade, and not only do I recall attending some of the parades in the city, but one of my best friends growing up was a guy named Paul Rice, and his father was the floatmaker for the city. They have this gigantic warehouse where they would store the floats throughout the year, and that happened to be one of the temporary studios where Paul and I painted together when we were in high school, and it was really just magical. At that age, just being around creativity of a grand, monumental scale was impactful, and also seeing that it was possible to have a creative life.
CJB: A clear thematic throughline in your work is the power of ritual and spectacle and the experiences of the people at the center who are enacting these often elaborate performances. With some of your new work in SELF MUST DIE, we see a shift from apparently secular scenes of sporting events and parades to sacred traditions around honoring people who have died, including Black Americans killed by racial violence. Would you talk a little bit about that evolution? What commonalities or differences do you see between these profane and sacred traditions? What do they accomplish for their participants?
DF: There’s no question that the year of 2020 and the stark focus on morbidities and death really had most of us around the world thinking about mortality. Beyond just an idea, there were the calls and the text messages and the posts of people who lost loved ones. There were deaths in my family, people close to us; I lost a dear friend. I thought about the preponderance of death as a norm. It’s one thing, I think, to experience occasional loss; somehow that seems more bearable in comparison to this sort of onslaught of deaths. And so I was very much thinking about mortality and communities affected disproportionately by something as finite as death. That’s where the words “self must die” came from. I really enjoy the opportunity to respond directly to the world I live in and to have art that reflects those times. SELF MUST DIE was an occasion in which I thought I could create something that reflected the somber mood and the preponderance of death.
CJB: These scenes are fittingly somber, but the paintings themselves are also very aesthetically beautiful and vibrant in their coloration; there’s a sense of communal spirit or shared celebration of the lives of the people who have been lost.
DF: The rituals that memorialize a life that’s come to an end are rooted in community. I often use uniforms in my work, often from sporting matches, but also in some cases from labor movements. This body of work was an opportunity to expand that into religious tradition. The choir, for example, and the choir robes, and the idea of achieving a sense of togetherness, some kind of ability to add up to this greater collective endeavor through song. That can become a balm for those who died, but also for the individuals who participate, who in many cases are from marginalized communities; those individuals and communities are able to corral a sense of power, and it’s very often through the collective. I was able to ruminate on these ideas across the life spectrum.
I’ d also say that in learning about Black funerary tradition, funeral homes in the United States are a post–Civil War development. Embalming fluid used in the war made it possible to preserve life for funeral ritual. In some of my research, I found that very early on white undertakers were publicly disparaged for their work and as a result, formed a union to improve the low opinions of the work they did. But for Black funeral directors, it was the exact opposite. They became the center of the Black community. They were often well-to-do entrepreneurs, who helped fund churches and political candidates. So I was also very interested in how Black funerary tradition exposed some of the underlying racial and economic disparity that still persists today.
CJB: Before attending Morehouse College, you had been a serious student of art in high school and then enrolled for a time at the Pratt Institute in New York. What was your experience of continuing your education as an artist in a historically Black college? In what ways has your time there shaped the art you make or the views you hold?
DF: Attending Morehouse was pivotal and foundational for me. I started at the Pratt Institute, which was a fine school, but at the time I was there, in the early nineties, art history was taught in a book called the H. W. Janson History of Art that probably weighs ten pounds—I might be exaggerating, but it was a giant book—and I don’t know if there were any Black artists in the entire book. I remember being so angry and frustrated. I really do think that the way we teach art history today is by comparison much more inclusive, but at that time, art history began in the caves of Lascaux, and you took a traipse through Europe, and then early American artists, then up through Modernism. And nowhere in that course was there history of African American or African art traditions.
At Morehouse, I took a course at Spelman College, our sister school, with a professor named Dr. Akua McDaniel, the history of African American art. In that class, I learned about slaves who owned other slaves, because they were blacksmiths and metalworkers. I learned about African Americans who went door to door during the early nineteenth century painting the portraits of white families. Joshua Johnson is an artist we know of from that period. We also studied the early twentieth century and the WPA period and learned about artists like Edmonia Lewis and Augusta Savage. So I was opened to a world in which African Americans had continually contributed to the history of art in America and in the world. I felt connected to a very rich lineage and tradition. It really did take the chip off of my shoulder and compelled me to get to work in a serious way.
CJB: It certainly seems that you’ve paid it forward in becoming an educator yourself, and you’ve worked with students of all ages, from young children to adults.
DF: I’ve generally been interested in education beyond the school walls. Very early, as a young artist, I taught very small children, ages three to five. I also worked after-school and summer programs. Then, I worked with men in homeless shelters in Atlanta for a while teaching art. That was very interesting to experience how art functioned in the lives of people who were without homes or without housing security, asking those questions about whether or not it had a function. Was it necessary that all your base needs be met in order to experience and appreciate art? That was very informative. I’ve been active as a critic in MFA programs, and I’m actually starting a program in my hometown of Memphis for under-resourced high school–aged artists to help them in their college pursuits and to understand what it means to live a creative life, in the form of a sleepaway camp. I think I’ve been interested in what can happen outside of schools, because very often schools are privileged places, so I’m interested in what’s possible beyond that.
CJB: From what you’ve said about your education and what I’ve read in previous interviews, it seems that your reading in various disciplines is important to your thinking about the art you’re making. With SELF MUST DIE, you engaged with the writings of scholar Christina Sharpe and theologian James H. Cone, among others, for instance. What are you reading these days?
CJB: If you have time!
DF: I only laugh because I’m surrounded by books! I really have a healthy addiction to books and reading. I’ll give you a glimpse of what I’m looking at now. There’s a great book by Elizabeth Hinton that just came out called America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s. That’s a really important read, because she’s considering the role of violence in movements and how violence is framed when communities of color employ strategies that include violence. I also traveled to Brazil last year, and I have a great book by Pedro Figari from the Museum of Modern Art in São Paolo. It’s in Portuguese, so I’m limited, but the pictures are really insightful. And then I’m reading a fantastic book called Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts. It’s a collection of writings from various artists in the Asian diaspora, and the list of names is just incredible. Some of the artists I know of, like Anicka Yi or Lumi Tan, but there are many more that I don’t know—such as Jessica Hong—it’s intergenerational, which I really love. And then I have another exciting book on the writings of Mark Rothko. I have kind of short patience with art books, because they’re often written by art historians or scholars—not to disparage art historians, but the artist’s voice can sometimes get lost in the analysis. I’m really excited about opportunities to hear the artist’s voice directly, be that through diaries or letters or other correspondence, because I relate very closely to their experiences. It really is a treat to be able to read the artist’s voice in their own hand, so this book on Rothko is really informative. I’ll stop there.
CJB: When talking about your art education at Morehouse, you said you gained a sense of working from a lineage. Are there certain artists who most stand out as who you feel you’re in a lineage with?
DF: I’m often asked that question, but my source of inspiration is varied and vast, so I wouldn’t be able to extract just a name or two. But I can tell you that there are several artists from the WPA era, artists like Aaron Douglas, who is very closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Speaking about Georgia, artists like Hale Woodruff, who has many of his works in the Atlanta University Center. He actually did these wonderful woodcuts of row houses there in Georgia; I was really moved by that work. William H. Johnson, from the same era. I like to draw sources from that period, given that so many of those artists were excluded from our canonical history of art. With my platform, I’m very deliberate about drawing direct ties to those artists. Of course I’ve been inspired by so many more in successive generations, but I think there’s an opportunity to bring them into the contemporaneous dialogue.
CJB: That’s fascinating. Thinking of the WPA era of art, this time when so many artists were employed to produce works for community spaces, you’ve created a number of public artworks yourself. What’s on your mind when you’re creating something like your work for the MTA or the Whitney, or perhaps other public pieces you’ve done?
DF: I think it’s in keeping with my interest in education beyond the school walls. It’s an opportunity to free art from the constraints of privilege that kind of dictate the customs and norms of art spaces. The public realm is an opportunity to hopefully touch people who would not ordinarily encounter contemporary art. When I think about something like the MTA, I very much think about the kinds of people who might encounter that work. I think about weary travelers, I think about a single mother and her child after a long commute, I think about a single young person making their way in the city, I think about the elderly. I really think broadly about humanity, and I try to create something that will add value to their daily experience. It’s a different sort of challenge, but one that I really embrace because of the kind of democracy and the access of public spaces. I see it as an obligation.
Life would be unsatisfactory for me if I were restricted to creating solely in formal art spaces. I grew up in a place where we didn’t have too many museums and art was something that was almost utilitarian. You had craftspeople; portraiture was the way that I came to art. A lot of that has to do with where I came from, Memphis, Tennessee, but also being an African. Art is utilitarian—stools are carved to be sat on; sculpture is often used in ritual. I think at my core there is some desire to really assert the utility in art, if there is any; the public realm is the place where I can best achieve that goal.
CJB: That makes me think of what you said before about working with homeless individuals and your question about whether the needs that art or art education serve can be relevant when someone’s physical needs for shelter or safety are not secure. Have you come to any answers on that?
DF: Maybe I’m still asking this question, but at this point in my journey, I am convinced that what is most salient about art is the humanity at its core. It is the expression of one individual that is designed to be consumed by others, and I think there’s an act of love in that kind of expression that human beings are wired to appreciate. I don’t think that all your base needs need to be met in order for you to appreciate art. In fact, I think, quite the opposite. I think the potential of art to inspire is boundless, and as long as you’re a human being, there’s something perceptible in art that connects you. I’m thoroughly convinced that it’s a worthwhile endeavor for that reason.
Images © 2021 Derek Fordjour