We are thrilled to feature the work of our new Ctrl+P: Photography Taken Offline artist Shawn Theodore. Theodore’s images are on view through April 29, 2017.
Shawn Theodore is a multidisciplinary Philadelphia-based artist working in photography, video, and collage. His practice embodies a defiant brand of black artistry; one that focuses on the fragmentation and manipulation of African American and African Diaspora identities and otherness, while exploring concepts of race, spirituality, patriarchy, matriarchy and class structure within disappearing Black communities. Theodore attended Tyler School of Art and received his BA in Journalism, Public Relations and Advertising from Temple University.His solo exhibition highlights include: Church of Broken Pieces ’17, African American Museum in Philadelphia; The Avenues ’16, Painted Bride Art Center; The Avenues, G-Town and Uptown ‘14, Imperfect Gallery and Scribe Video Center; The Avenues; North and West Philly, ‘14 and he has exhibited in several group shows.
Church of Broken Pieces
Essayist Teju Cole once marveled at the tonal range in the shadows of an image by Roy DeCarava, musing that these darker areas might have been solid, inscrutable black in the hands of another artist. Given the long history of photographic technologies’ inability to register black skin, the artist’s embrace of subtle, modulated darkness was profoundly radical, especially in an age when mainstream representations of African American life were demanded with bombast or stereotype, if they were demanded at all. With DeCarava, Cole writes, “What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.”
It is no surprise that Philadelphia-based photographer Shawn Theodore cites the iconic Harlem artist among his greatest inspirations. Shooting entirely in the streets, Theodore relishes the many ways that natural light can caress the skin of his Afro-Diasporic subjects, from a flattening glare, to dapples and highlights that dance across the face, to dramatic shadows that all but obfuscate the body. As in the restrained masterworks of DeCarava, however, even the darkest blacks of Theodore’s images give way to nuanced tonalities upon sustained contemplation—for instance, the men and women who turn away from the camera and into the shadows, granting the viewer only the silhouette of their three-quarter profile.
In Church of Broken Pieces, Theodore presents a new body of photographs made on the streets of Philadelphia’s African American neighborhoods, many of them shrinking thanks to encroaching gentrification. A self-identified street shooter, Theodore has always found his subjects in chance urban encounters; some of these interactions between strangers have evolved into sustained collaborations, the fruits of which are presented here. This constellation of relationships and the community it sustains, however fleeting, are at the core of Theodore’s work.
Complementary to the intimacy and quiet darkness of many of these photographs, a strand of performative exuberance shines through. Our eyes can’t help but linger on the elegantly understated, trans-diasporic fashions in Theodore’s images, often commanding as much attention as the people themselves. Evoking the saturated palette and dynamic surrealism of the great Viviane Sassen, these photographs capture clothing and bodies in motion without sacrificing an ounce of their exquisite composed-ness. The self-possessed subjects enact the language of fashion spreads, history paintings, street performances, and mystical rites, often simultaneously.
Drawn from the name of a church close to the artist’s childhood home, the title’s self-conscious invocation of biblical grandeur calls to mind the great titles of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. Theodore once asked a pastor friend about the origins of the phrase, who told him that “it had to do with the tradition of smaller churches breaking away from the larger ones to continue their service to the community,” he recalls. Like the church and its powerfully simple words, Theodore’s photographs conjure a transhistorical, transnational community mobilizing against erasure. They show us beauty as history, memory, resistance, and a way forward, shining the same wise light of the artist’s forebears and, little by little, opening out into new glories.
Ctrl+P: Photography taken offline is an exciting venture at Catherine Edelman Gallery inspired by the hundreds of photographs we see on blogs and online galleries. Started in January 2011, CEG introduces Chicagoans to new artists we find while searching the web, exhibiting a small selection of one person’s work every two months, taking the pictures offline and putting them on the wall. It is our goal that Ctrl+P will provide further exposure for these photographers away from the glow of a computer monitor and without the temptation to click to the next link. We hope you will join us by unplugging from the internet and visiting CEG to see these photographs the way they were intended — in print.