It’s fitting that artist Rodney King showed his first collection of his paintings, “Kingspen 88 Souls of Black Folks,” at Taswira Gallery in Pioneer Square; King and Avery Barnes, the gallery’s owner, both work to uplift people.
Taswira is an acronym for Transformative Action for Sustainable Women’s Initiatives & Resources in Africa. The gallery sells streetwear and other handmade products crafted by women in Bamburi, a small village in Mombasa, Kenya.
Art can also transform in its own way, inspiring people to think, feel and learn. King’s brightly colored nostalgic paintings not only achieve the goals in his artist’s statement to “share love” and create “dope images celebrating all that is great about black culture” but also address the reality that being Black in America has always been a challenge.
Four of King’s paintings are his versions of magazine cover art, focusing on publications targeted to a Black audience. “Flo-Jo” depicts an Ebony cover in which sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner crosses the finish line, the symbol of linked Olympic rings floating behind her. The red clay of the track echoes the reddish-brown box enclosing the magazine title. Flo-Jo holds up her arms, her signature ultra-long fingernails pointing triumphantly to the sky. Many observers had (often negative) opinions on her self-designed outfits and six-inch nails, but she responded by winning three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics. The caption next to her proclaims her to be the “fastest woman in the world.”
Another Ebony cover is “Inner City Blues.” A seated man is dressed in blue jeans and jacket, both composed of long, triangular denim patches. The color scheme in the painting is mainly red, white and blue, and a rocket is embedded in one of the man’s jean patches.
The U.S. was proud of its space program in the 1960s and regarded itself as a world leader but had problems at home. Riots in inner cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles and Newark erupted in response to police brutality against the Black community and racism in general. The long yellow ribbon near the bottom of “Inner City Blues” appears decorative at first glance but is actually a piece of crime scene tape.
In “Aretha,” the singer Aretha Franklin graces the cover of Jet magazine. King’s inspiration seems to be a December 1971 issue of Ebony in which Franklin wore a similar dress and turban and held the same pose. The main focus of interest on the original Ebony cover was a pattern in the middle of Franklin’s green dress spiraling out into a circle, almost giving the impression of spinning.
King’s reimagining of the cover makes the background as alive and full of movement as the dress. Vibrant geometric shapes of blue, orange, yellow and purple throng behind the singer. You can almost see the Apollo Theater sign near Franklin’s shoulder flashing in neon. King added purple, the color of royalty, to Franklin’s dress, as befits the queen of soul.
Modern hip-hop began at house parties in New York in the late 1970s, but, unlike other forms of music invented by Black people in the U.S., it was not immediately co-opted and sanitized by white people. “Word up 1988” depicts the style of this subculture. Kangol bucket hats, four-finger rings and bright tracksuits were a look. Massive gold chains symbolized increased status and wealth. The necklace in this painting references ancient Egypt, where the belief was that the bodies of gods and goddesses were made of gold.
The distinctive label of Krylon spray paint peeks out of the middle of “Word up 1988,” and King tagged the canvas with the name of his own company, Kingspen. A figure with a Picasso-esque face has been blasted by yellow spray paint. Graffiti is egalitarian; anyone with a can of spray paint can be an artist, and any accessible surface can (covertly) become a canvas viewed by all who pass by. But graffiti is also transgressive, an act of mischief and resistance against the established order, like Picasso’s cubism and hip-hop music itself.
Double dutch jump rope is another activity that became popular in Black communities, especially if they had few resources. “Leschi” portrays girls, viewed from behind, jumping rope in a gym. All the children are faceless. They could be anyone, anywhere.
Basketball also needs little equipment beyond a ball and a net. The basketball player Allen Iverson grew up in poverty and stayed true to himself, never becoming the clean cut, bland role model that team owners desired. In King’s rendition, “Iverson,” the Philadelphia 76ers player, wears a long gold chain as well as a gold watch, ring and bracelet. Tattoos are visible on his arm. Though Iverson usually wore his hair in zig-zaggy cornrows, he’s portrayed with a towering afro, as if the controversy that often swirled around him took the form of a big dark cloud above his head.
“March on Washington” stood out in the exhibit due to its uncharacteristic lack of color. The muted shades, mostly beige and white, impart a sober and subdued mood. Martin Luther King Jr., at the podium to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, is surrounded by men in white jackets and caps. Though resembling chefs, they are King’s security team. Their caps, pointed in front and back, are modeled after that belonging to the Indian resistance movement leader Mahatma Gandhi.
MLK has a resolute expression. He is dressed in a black jacket and tie with a white shirt, his conservative clothes giving no cause for criticism. Yet his words of truth still caused shock in large swathes of 1960s America.
The heroes King portrays are not idealized. “Outkast” has two faceless men. Kanye West is placed in the bottom of the canvas and looks diminutive compared to a horrified-looking female figure looming above him in “Have a Toast Kanye.” MLK almost blends in with his security team. Many celebrities came from ordinary backgrounds and are not that different from us either.
Art like King’s fosters empathy foremost by making his world available to anyone who cares to participate in it. It’s easier to stay in our own bubbles, viewing others with suspicion. Yet venturing outside brings the realization that we are all more alike than we think.
Empathy can begin to dismantle any walls of fear we create that can lead to violence. Mass shootings have become commonplace, and recently a teenager in Missouri was shot in the head for ringing the wrong doorbell. Compassion and understanding are needed more than ever in our angry (and heavily armed) nation.
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Read more of the May 24-30, 2023 issue.