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Detroit Proper: Re-examining Americana Through Black Art

For artists like Tylonn Sawyer, the spirit of America is not all stars and stripes.

Art by Tylonn Sawyer

A red barn at sunset. A wrought-iron, rooster weather vane. Glass milk bottles. A vintage, hand-stitched quilt. A creaky, wooden rocking chair, next to a bin of unhusked summer corn. A rusted truck and a lazy hound. And, of course, an American flag. To many, this collection of items referred to as “Americana” evokes freedom and national pride; they are iconic symbols of American culture. But for many people of color, Americana is not about fields of waving grain or sentimental folk songs. Instead, it evokes the terror of racism, the fear of lynching, the isolation of otherness in the country of their birth.

It is this version of Americana that black figurative artist Tylonn Sawyer is determined to make us face. “For many, the flag is sacred and harkens back to the good old days,” says Sawyer, 41. “But I’m depicting what our relationship to the flag looks like.” And an unflinching look it is. His solo exhibit, “American Gods,” is now on display at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown Detroit. What one immediately notices in his life-sized, evocative paintings is how he couples the flag with imagery that is not so bucolic. In “Post Hope,” a black man in a dark suit is sprawled face-down upon a flag. Behind his back, he holds a mask of Barack Obama. The white stripes of the flag are papered over in images of the black struggle in America.

Perhaps the most striking image is called “Pieta.” It borrows from the iconic Michelangelo sculpture of the same name, which means “pity” in Italian. In Michelangelo’s version, which sits in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the crucified Jesus is draped across his mother’s lap as she cradles him in sorrow. It’s clear that she carries in her lap the sadness of the world. In Sawyer’s version, Mary is replaced by a black woman whose face is both weary and determined. In her lap is not the crucified Jesus, but her murdered, teenage son wearing a black hoodie. Behind them hangs the nod to Americana – the stars and stripes. It’s hard to look at Sawyer’s “Pieta” and not feel the angst and anger of the black mother and child. The allusion to Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement is unmistakable.

“This is our Americana,” Sawyer says. “My work is a hard-core indictment of this country. I want black people to remember that they are Americans, too. You have a right to criticize it without going to jail. By placing African-Americans in Americana, I am saying that these are the freedoms that we fought for.” Sawyer’s emotional exhibit also depicts African-Americans standing behind – and drawing strength from – the masks of our ancestral “Golden Boys,” including Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin. “American Gods” is new work that Sawyer completed since the last election and is a direct response to the current political climate. “It took me awhile to clear my head and synthesize the flurry of the news feed,” he says. “I had to interrogate what’s happening in this current administration and break it down to a single static image. The flag is what ties the work together.”

His work comes at an interesting time in Detroit, when gentrification is both challenging the definition of “Detroiter,” and making more room for long-time Detroit artists to define the city for themselves. “I do appreciate that I get to decorate my city,” Sawyer says of the recent attention to Detroit artists in public spaces. His mural of an African-American boy sitting in the same position as the iconic Spirit of Detroit is one of the pieces of public art that adorns the Whole Foods Market in Detroit. He also has been a resident artist and guest curator for the Red Bull House of Art in Eastern Market.

Sawyer’s work is gaining recognition outside of the 313 as well. His paintings have been included in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad including the 55th Venice Biennale in Italy, Heron Arts in San Francisco and the New York Academy of Art. It’s the marriage of his talent and his politics that makes him a powerful artistic voice today. If the current avalanche of headlines makes you question your patriotism, Sawyer’s art offers a powerful answer: I, too, sing America – and don’t you forget it. “I want black people to remember that they are Americans, too. You have a right to criticize it without going to jail. By placing African-Americans in Americana, I am saying that these are the freedoms that we fought for.” 

Tylonn J. Sawyer’s solo exhibition “American Gods” is at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 E. Forest Ave. in Detroit, through Sept. 8. You can also see more of Sawyer’s work on the cover of BLAC’s January 2018 issue.

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