In the works included in Before I Died I Was Invisible, Kevin Claiborne uses photographic and printmaking processes to address the Black experience in America today. It takes its title from a poem written by the artist. His keen interests in poetry and the hidden as well as multiple meanings in language permeate his work. Claiborne’s exhibition comprises two ongoing series: “BLACKNESS IS,” 2019, landscape photographs layered with screenprinted text, and “Great Unconformity,” 2020, a further exploration of word and photographic imagery through digital collage.
A seminal series for the artist, “BLACKNESS IS” began with black-and-white photographs shot on film in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree, California, onto which he screenprinted excerpts from his poems. In a bold sans serif font, the works bluntly ask the viewer: What is Black? What is Blackness? Are all Blacks Black? Where does Blackness exist? The juxtaposition of the landscape and the texts critically examine the experience of Black people in the United States today. Reflecting on the origin of this work, Claiborne has said that he “started thinking about the relationship between the environment and Black people’s identity development in beautiful yet potentially harmful places.”
Claiborne’s technique plays with legibility – what can be seen or not seen in the photographs, what can be understood or misunderstood from the texts. The works’ formatting and lack of punctuation purposefully interrupt the reading process, arresting the viewer in a Brechtian state of hyperawareness. Claiborne deliberately fragments both parts of the whole, leaving the viewer to contemplate the multiplicity of their meanings.
The texts and images in the series “Great Unconformity” are culled from another kind of source: The Black Male in America: Perspectives on His Status in Contemporary Society, a book published in 1977 by sociologists Drs. Doris Y. Wilkinson and Ronald L. Taylor. The book presents a series of case studies on Black men – from Black men as fathers, husbands and providers to the societal barriers faced by Black men in education, the workforce and at home. Claiborne cuts texts from this book and pastes them onto images of African tribal masks. The results are digital collages that acerbically question, yet again, the presence, expectations and aspirations of Black people both historically and today.
This survey, made by the artist, is a work of web-based art. It asks eight questions and responses are made anonymously. It is a space to think without hierarchy or accountability. Please, engage with Claiborne’s work by taking this survey. Thank you!
1. BLACK PEOPLE DONT, 2020, from the series “BLACKNESS IS,” screenprint on gelatin silver print, 48″ x 60″, unique. Courtesy of the Artist
2. WHY DO WE TRY (give up), 2021, from the series “Great Unconformity,” screenprinting ink on panel, 48” x 60” x 2”, unique. Courtesy of the Artist