Torkwase Dyson enjoys being near water. “I’m looking for it,” she said, “whether it’s a river, a lake or the ocean. I prefer to be in an environment that has these things. The Brooklyn-based artist has long been interested in how these aquatic spaces connect with the climate crisis, colonization, and black history. His 2019 exhibition 1919: Black Water featured paintings and sculptures exploring the murder of Eugene Williams who, along with four other black teenagers, went swimming in Lake Michigan on a homemade raft. He drifted to a separate white beach and Williams was struck by a rock thrown by someone there. He drowned – an event that sparked the Chicago race riot in 1919.
Dyson’s explorations continue this month, as Liquid a Place opens at the Pace Gallery in London. The show is the result of Dyson’s time by the Thames and her research into the people and objects she carried. “The title comes from my interest in studying water in our own bodies. All science proves that water holds memory. So Liquid a Place says our body is a place, an information site. The sculptures are in part inspired by pipelines, as well as the Middle Passage, the route taken by enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean.
Music, poetry, dance and sound will also resonate through the gallery, in a special three-day program that follows on from his 2019 work, I Can Drink the Distance. Shown in New York, it was a two-act performance taking into account the Anthropocene’s relationship to racism, plantation slavery, and how white supremacy informed industrialization. Performers include former Atari Teenage member Riot Rowdy SS and electronic musician Gaika. “I invited some pretty fantastic thinkers to collaborate,” says Dyson.
The artist was born in Chicago in 1970. “I started doing art intentionally during my senior year at Tougaloo College in Mississippi,” she says. “I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in sociology and in the last semester I took a course in drawing and sculpture and I was not bad at it. His early influences included African-American artists such as Samella Lewis, Minnie Evans, and David C Driskell. “The penny fell with Benny Andrews,” says Dyson, referring to the figurative painter, collagist and activist who helped found the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. “I met him when he gave me my very first individual review at Tougaloo Art Colony. His exact words were, “You can paint – so what? These words stay with me.
Dyson’s work is typically rendered in an intensely black pigment and materializes from hundreds of drawings. “The impetus comes from the drawings, from the making with my hands, which then produces a set of questions and a set of curiosities. Although his works vary wildly in terms of materials and shapes, from layered acrylic paintings to plexiglass tetrahedron sculptures, they are all unified by a deep sense of geometry, with crisp lines and elegant angular compositions. She always thinks of bodies, of the way they move through buildings, architectural structures and colonial landscapes.
The forms in Dyson’s work, however, are never arbitrary. They always connect with something of symbolic historical significance. From triangles to rectangles, from circles to trapezoids, she is interested in configurations of freedom. Earlier work such as 2018’s Hyper Shapes, a series of brush mark designs, are informed by where slaves hid to break free. In the Plantationocene painting from the Black Water exhibition, the boys’ homemade raft is seen from above, surrounded by sparkling water. Although it led to William’s death and a riot, for Dyson the raft represents a site of self-liberation, how black people find ways to play and be mobile in white spaces.
Dyson is also presenting new work for Back to Earth, the Serpentine Galleries’ multi-year project in which 60 artists, architects and poets respond to the climate crisis. Dyson will present a sound installation based on breathing in the age of pollution. “After George Floyd and during Covid,” she says, “I began to explore breathing and brain function.” She also connects air and breathing to meditation, and finds other connections to “white supremacy, police, and American torture.”
Since her work is so invested in the body, I ask Dyson what she thinks about Covid. “It’s a continuum,” she says. “It exacerbated the system. But what we’ve learned from Covid is only about how far technology, social science, and our industries have come – and how advanced capitalism is. “
Dyson’s dream is to install a large painting, or multimedia work in situ, in the Gulf of Mexico – an “architectural abstraction” based on Pilate’s earring, a symbolic element of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. . “This is where I spent the most time diving,” she explains, “and my grandfather is from New Orleans.
Until then, his main concern is to continue to explore forms of self-liberation, including systems of degradation and dispossession. “Blacks and Bruns have triumphed in more systems than racism,” she says. “How is the liberation going? It interests me as a way to create.