It is my belief that our memories and experiences are directly responsible for who we become. What we are exposed to, what we read, the toys we play with as children, what we view… I attribute this thought to my deep-seated desire to make sure I’m sending a clear message (with my work) and that the message I am sending is “saying something” important; because if I believe we are shaped by our memories, as an artist, I must also believe that I too play a small part in shaping and shifting the views of anyone who comes in contact with my life’s work. I did not always think this way but once realized, the thought never left me.
The primary theme that drives my art practice today is celebrating the beauty of black childhood. I am currently devoted to creating portraits that are inspired by artworks spanning various art periods in Western Art with the intent of bringing to the forefront faces that were often under-celebrated in this style of work.
My camera remains my primary tool of communication, while my constant exploration of diverse ways of expression moves me to add several different layers using a variety of mediums. After a portrait session is complete, I typically digitally manipulate my subjects and unite them with other components to achieve a work that is a new expression. Often lending to them the eyes of someone their elder and more wise and almost always exaggerating their hair and features in a celebratory way. Thereafter, I may superimpose antique patterns and textures, collage vintage botanical and wildlife illustrations, or add hand-drawn digital illustration. If I feel I am not yet complete, after each portrait is refined and printed, I may combine paint and gold leaf adding ornamental elements inspired by 19th-century artworks. By experimenting with various art practices, I allow myself to follow no set of rules while creating instinctually and fluidly. Each layer serves it's very own meaningful purpose.
It is my hope that with each theme I explore and with each portrait I create, something vital is etched into the memory of the viewer.
Deeply Embedded is an exhibition of photographic works by Tawny Chatmon. The soul-stirring beauty in these images is a composite of melanin majesty, depicted in regal attire, knowing glances, intense gazes, lush natural hair, gold flecked crowns and ancestral echoes. As we consider notions of belonging, we witness a counter narrative and reinterpretation of black existence and experiences, positioning of the black body to address inclusion, presence and absence.
Visual and literal legacies of erasure are banished, with the vibrant reimagining of what’s ‘Deeply Embedded’ in ourselves and our psyche. The series explores the familial bonds of black childhood, motherhood and memory in perceptual stillness. Relationships and relevance around the interior lives of women and children; juxtaposes our need to deeply honor and ‘do more’ to elevate black motherhood in the social, spiritual and societal realms.
The photos depicted are taken from 3 different and equally important series in Tawny’s recent work: Deeply Embedded, The Awakening and The Redemption, which celebrate restoration of the black figure and the ever present clarion call around the value of black lives. ‘Deeply Embedded’ looks like, our families restored, our ancestry traced, our natural hair regarded, our melanin revered. Our manifest destiny as a people is our #mood, and it is exquisitely free of stereotypes and censorship.
Deeply Embedded, brings to the forefront, the black body as the primary figure ethereal in its quality and form. This celebration of beauty, hair and figure is reminiscent of art periods where black persons often are not present. We hope these photographs and their lovingly restored vintage frames, will evoke a reverence and a pause from our fast paced lives; stopping us in our tracks, and taking our breath away. May reflecting on the royalty of sacred thoughts, ancient wisdom, storied ancestry and blackness, lead you to reflect on what’s ‘Deeply Embedded’ on the inside.
- Monica O. Montgomery
Executive Director, Prince George's African American Museum & Cultural Center
Our children inherit what we don't resolve (-source unknown)
Inheritance, by Tawny Chatmon (American, b. 1979), invites the viewer to look beyond the decorated and nuanced portraits to examine issues of race and the historical positioning of African American portraiture in the absence of subjugation of the “black body” in Western art.
Chatmon, a mother of three black children, draws from her life experiences and belief that children inherit our memories, beliefs, traditions, and the world that we leave behind. Through her photographs, she conveys a message to her children, and to all black children, that they are precious, valued, and loved.
While the camera is her primary tool of communication, Chatmon takes a multi-layered approach in producing her photographs—her process does not subscribe to conventional photography. The photographs are often manipulated and hand-embellished with acrylic paint and 24-karat gold leaf, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s (1862-1918) “Golden Phase.” The use of gold and ornamentation in Klimt’s work evokes feelings of grace, magnificence, and beauty within Chatmon and has remained in the artist’s consciousness. These are the emotions Chatmon seeks to convey to those viewing her photographs. Her portraits are staged vignettes with models, who at times are her own children wearing elegant garments. Chatmon experiments with various art practices and does not restrict herself to follow any set of rules, allowing her to create instinctually and fluidly. The result is a beautiful and powerful iconography that speaks to “the disparities that continue to affect black people around the world.”
This exhibition presents three bodies of work: The Awakening, Byzantine Contempo, and The Redemption. In these series, Chatmon celebrates the beauty of black childhood, African American culture, and the delicate intricacies of protecting and raising a black child in today’s world. Each series is a conversation on love, nurturing, and the familial bond; a commentary on the politics of blackness; the historical portrayal of the black body; and an investigation of Renaissance and Byzantine portraiture. In combating the negative stereotyping associated with natural hairstyles and adornments that are distinctively likened to black people and culture, Chatmon glorifies these various styles: afros, locs, twists, and barbershop cuts revered in black communities. Embedded within the works are messages of embracing one’s beauty and cultural pride.
Text by Myrtis Bedolla. Edited by Grace Noh and Amanda Hajjar
Is there redemptive power in visual arts? Do artists have the ability to control and shift the narrative through their work? These are questions that inform my creative process while creating this ongoing body of work; I believe both to be true. In the same way that literature continues to be a tool for shaping the human psyche, I believe visual arts carry the same ability.
In the United States and abroad, the hair types and styles that are distinctively akin to Black people and culture continue to be policed and labeled as unkempt, unruly, unattractive, and unprofessional. While we proudly celebrate and adorn these styles with beads, barrettes and other accessories within our cultural norms, they continue to be labeled unacceptable. In schools worldwide, there are rules set in place deeming cornrows, barber designs, hair beads, afros, locs, and protective styles that use hair extensions as “violations of the dress code”. "Violations" that are punishable by ridicule, suspension, exclusion from extracurricular activities and expulsion. Still, in 2019, Black women and men are faced with similar discrimination in the workplace.
With this series, it is my intention to celebrate and reinforce the beauty of Black hair, features, life, and culture. These portraits are meant to act as a counter-narrative and redemptive measure to uplift and elevate Black hair, tradition and culture freeing us from negative stereotypes. An intent, not to be confused with seeking validation, but rather an unyielding affirmation of Black beauty.
The painted dresses and clothing are directly inspired by the beautiful and vastly beloved works of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, during his Golden Phase. This is intentional and I wanted the connection to be made immediately. Visually, Klimt’s use of gold and decorative elements brought about strong feelings of grace, magnificence and beauty within me upon my first discovery of his work and have remained in my subconscious mind ever since. Likewise, these are the emotions I am looking to evoke within the viewer of The Redemption series.
-Written by Tawny Chatmon, edited by E. Bekure