Desmond Beach’s Vintage-Style Photographs Shine Light on the Long History of Institutionalized Racism
“My highest goal is to turn the terrible into the beautiful,” says Desmond Beach. Based in New York City, the interdisciplinary artist relies on African storytelling traditions to reexamine the transatlantic slave trade and its persistent grip on American social structures.
Here, Beach shares Stratification of Souls, an ongoing body of work connecting the history of Black America with present-day inequities. Printed on metal, Beach’s appropriated portraits of 19th and 20th century Black men and women resemble vintage-style tintypes, a popular early form of photography. Beach superimposes images gathered from Black Lives Matter protests over their faces, creating a nonlinear historical record of pain, struggle, and resistance.
“The series' objective is to raise public awareness of institutionalized racism,” Beach tells NOT REAL ART. “Recognizing and connecting history to the present helps us follow the path to racial justice and establish anti-racist initiatives as living people.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Desmond Beach discusses the role of the artist as prophet and healer, reinvigorating his work with a move to NYC, and the wisdom of discarding (and forgetting) bad advice.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Desmond Beach: AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People; Whispers from the Walls: The Art of Whitfield Lovell; Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America; Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power; My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem; and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
DB: I'd want to have dinner with Barkley L. Hendricks. I loved the way he depicted Black people in his paintings. He placed them in the spotlight and showed off their swagger and beauty.
What are you trying to express with your art?
DB: I'm attempting to convey that the artist can become an activist, preacher, intercessor, healer, and prophet through their ideas, emotions, actions, and artwork creation.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
DB: The best advice I've ever received was to listen for the ancestors' voices. They will guide you along your path. You have survivor's DNA running through your body, and as a result, you can only accomplish great things. Your crown has been bought and paid for, so put it on your head and wear it.
I don't remember the worst because I was also told to take the meat and throw away the bones. Bad advice is the bones.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
DB: I strive to maintain a focused studio practice. I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, and am off on weekends. The weekend is for recharging, which might take the form of gallery hopping, brunching, attending church, or just hanging-out time with friends.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
DB: To me, success is defined by the creation of work that is true to my voice and lived experience. If audiences are inspired, feel seen, leave with unanswered questions, and are driven to learn more, I would consider myself a successful artist. And, of course, selling my work and having it acquired by museums.
What role does the artist have in society?
DB: I believe the role of artists in our society is to keep us connected to our humanity. To keep us honest, hold a mirror up to us, reflect who we are in a particular moment, whether it's good or bad. Artists are the truth-tellers in our community.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
DB: I'd rather be a historically significant artist. I choose this because I want my work to have a lasting influence. I want my work to be able to inspire the next generation of artists to come. I want my work to document our histories, the moment in time that we are living, to look back and say that I had unique methods of creating compositions to tell the stories of Black people. I want to be remembered.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
DB: No, I have never turned down an opportunity. Every opportunity has given me valuable lessons and opened other doors to new opportunities.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
DB: Something I am excited about right now is my artistic research. I'm currently a PhD candidate in Creative Practice. My research is Black Joy: Embracing the Beauty of Mourning, Celebration, and Resistance in the Face of Trauma in Black Communities in Major American Cities as a Result of Implicit Bias and Murder.
The police shootings of unarmed Black people have spurred anti-racism protests throughout the United States and internationally. Despite the pain, African-Americans create techniques for celebrating, grieving, and resisting, which I regard as The Three Stages of Black Joy.
The research focuses on the tangible manifestations and visible shapes of temples and conduits representing lamentation, joy, and resistance.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
DB: Because my creative practice deals with unfolding the trauma of living in a Black body, I have a few strategies for maintaining my mental health. I see a therapist, communicate with my inner circle of closest friends, and rely on my spirituality and the Ancestral Voices.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
DB: Having lived in the DC metropolitan area and now New York City, the location has affected my work. In DC, it was constantly in the forefront of my mind how the government and laws marginalize Black people and people of color. Now, in New York, the energy and creativity are palpable, which has reinvigorated and breathed newness into my work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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