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Interview with Richard-Jonathan Nelson

New Takes

Interview with Richard-Jonathan Nelson

By Maddie Klett May 6, 2020

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

Oakland-based artist Richard-Jonathan Nelson makes digital and fabric works that visualize speculative futures and his presence within them. Collaging images of plants from the herbal, hoodoo traditions of the Deep South set against noxious, neon colors, Nelson creates visions of the future that toe-the-line between emancipating and dire. This conversation took place before the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been edited and shortened for clarity. Still, viewed now through the lens of a crisis that seems to color everything, Nelson’s thoughts on survival in today’s world and in the alternate worlds he creates reveal how survival and crises are not, for many, born out of this pandemic.


Richard-Jonathan Nelson. Foolish to believe this is their future when we've only just arrived, 2019, hand dyed and woven cotton, jacquard woven cotton, collage, piecework. Courtesy of the Artist.

Maddie Klett: I’m starting off with the topic of the future, because this is an ongoing concern in your work. Can you talk about this more?

Richard-Jonathan Nelson: An awareness of the future is constantly present in my work and how to claim space for the Black body within speculative futures, but what does that future actually look like to me? The concept that the future will be a utopia founded on a finite resolution to prejudicial issues is foreign to me because it’s very difficult to separate what is happening now in the present and how those consequences will accumulate in the future. As a society, we’re stilling grappling with the beliefs around race and identity from generations past that refuse to be rectified. It makes me wonder: What would my life be in the future? Will my queer Black body ever be represented?

I begin by working through images and thinking about the requirements of performative identity and ethnicity as gate keys into the art world and their relationships to concepts of the future. It made me think: Is my identity this archaic entity? That questioning springs from how the work of Black makers is curated through its relationship to mediated perceptions of Blackness and the inner city. I began constructing images of rhinoceroses and elephants as representations of the idea of Africa, but also as a representation of Blackness that I feel very separated from as an African American and as someone from the Deep South.

The future and its relationship to the Black body feel tenuous because in depictions of the future, Black people and Africa are always left behind. Even now, when I look at how art around me is selected, there is always a desire for Black work to reference a continuously retro idea of culture—one that Black makers are far ahead of and reshaping. 

While making these works, my mind branched off from there and imagined this concept of future-focused hope as abject. The future is imagined as a place where it’s like,
“Oh, it will be better in the future,” and there should be hope; things are possible. But then, you look at what’s happening in our present, I wonder, will there be a place for hope? That attraction to the idea of hope, as these blooming flowers and orchids within a net of a slime mold, is a creeping feeling that maybe hope will hold out.

That’s where my mind went. It was a layering of the artificial, the real, the remembered, the consumption of overgrowth of plants. What is the future? What is hope? Where can it go?  Who has access to hope when everything crumbles?

Richard-Jonathan Nelson. Digital construction for Misjudgment spreads like mycelium netting., 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.

MK: Could you talk about your use of color? Because in many works you use these neon, seemingly unnatural, bright colors.

RJN: When discussing my work there is an assumption of the artificiality of color, that these colors don’t exist, but the background for the rhinoceros work (Misjudgment spreads like mycelium netting., 2018) is the actual color of a form of fungi in the world. We always assume that the world is this flat, tonal, homogenous landscape—that the natural world is just a tasteful sea of brown and green, a one-tone body. That assumption even spills over to people who are different from us; we assume that they are just one thing. These complications in color and culture do exist in the world. These possibilities are real, but we filter them. There is an internal bias within us that we filter the world to be subdued and homogenous.

MK: How do you use images of plants? You’ve mentioned to me in the past that you’re interested in turning-on-its-head how African Americans are largely represented via imagery of the street and outdoor urban scenes—and how plants are not only something we find in the wild, but also something found in the homes of many Black families. Could you speak more about this interest in calling attention to Black domestic spaces through plants?

RJN: I’m coming from a background in the South that bridges the forest, farmers, and the urban as an organic example of Black identity. To come into spaces where it’s just the urban identity, it is very artificial to me. This integration of plants is where I feel at home, and I think this is what my future is: It’s the possibility of Blackness being within nature, and not being in danger, and not being threatened by the vulnerability of being in an open space.

There is a desire in me to depict the Black body in unencumbered spaces that are usually associated with white freedom and nature, which to me feels very much like a hopeful future. That hope for organic freedom and space runs counter to the real danger Black bodies experience when they interrupt those predominantly white spaces. It connects back to how my work references urban environments and the interiors of Black homes and how extremely dense with plants they can be, even artificial ones. It seems to be a desire for the safety and freedom of nature.

The language encoded in plants and the passed-down knowledge of how to use plants interest me. That codified language of what certain plants and animals represent connects to the elephants and flowers within my work as older forms of communications and generations. It also connects to my grandmother and how she passed down knowledge to me of plants and how to coexist with the natural world. That fact of my reality is a foreign concept to viewers when I discuss my relationship to the work. However, I find those lessons suddenly rushing back when I'm outside—of what a certain kind of tree is and how to use it—and to the family member who taught me. It’s that connection to plants as re-growing manifestations of generational knowledge, that maybe isn’t associated with Black identity but with my family and our passed-down heritage of plants, that I'm trying to interject within these spaces.

Richard-Jonathan Nelson. Digital construction for Wizened and made threadbare by misplaced care., 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.

MK: In some recent works you include representations of the body, which you often source online and from porn, and in others you do not. In Wizened and made threadbare by misplaced care., 2018 you include a more abstracted, fragmented image of what appears to be the disjointed spine of an elderly person. Can you talk about these choices?

RJN: I've been reexamining how I incorporate the Black body within the work, including how I can reinterpret what is a body, especially if that body isn't human, or how I can explore depicting an emotional representation of the Black body. I wanted to use a withered, powerful, but sinewed body as a musing on what my emotional body could look like in the future. It’s interesting to me as a Black male to make it to certain milestones in my life—to go, “Oh my God, I’m 26,” or “I’m going to be 35 soon”—because I’m aware that Black men don’t make it to this age because of police violence or healthcare. How that traversing through time will shape me is a thought I’ve begun to explore.

It’s interesting to then think about myself being elderly, or making it all the way to that point. It’s also difficult to find images of Black men that are vulnerable in that sense, especially at that age. It’s easy to find images of Black men that are virile, powerful, aware of the viewer's gaze. My work does subvert that and tries to find these images of Black men that are vulnerable, where they aren’t presenting themselves in this peacocky, masculine fashion that coincides with the Western idea of what Blackness is, what Black masculinity is. I had a difficult time trying to find something that represents and depicts my body that far into the future, which is very difficult to think of.

It’s also about trying to find other ways to depict Blackness. It’s even just trying to combat what art institutions assert Blackness to be. It’s very much rooted in these limited ideas of shared Blackness, or how the Black experience sometimes seems like it can only be based on very literal depictions of what Black identity is. To either remove the Black body, or to insert something else like some sort of city or plants, and say this is Blackness, it shifts the viewer from looking at Blackness to being within the experience of Blackness. That perception of the world is these emotional states that exist within my own Black body. When the body disappears from the work, the body isn’t gone.

I turn to the internet as space to create access. Even though the internet is being commodified, sliced-up, and restricted, the digital still holds space for possibility and for not being tied down by physicality. Talking with people within the Bay Area, they say I should go explore the physical world in the same way I do the conceptual. I have to stop and tell them I’m Black and I’m queer. I can’t move through the world in the same way you can. I can’t get on a plane and drop off into the middle of whatever country and be welcomed. There is going to be a prejudice associated with my body. For me, I can create these digital worlds that are constructed of places I would like to go, futures I wish I could have, or conversations that I wish I could say out loud that wouldn’t offend people.

Richard-Jonathan Nelson. Transferring files of corrupted information, is never simple., 2019, hand dyed and woven cotton, jacquard woven cotton, collage, piecework. Courtesy of the Artist.

MK: Right. On the one hand, there’s the freedom to assert one’s identity. But on the other, the postures put upon you and your body, and how it affects how you move through the world is very real. It’s interesting to me how your work is escapist, but not in the frivolous sense that I think that word carries. It is escapism out of necessity. It relates back to the creation of plant-filled natural spaces within the home, as you mentioned earlier.

RJN: It’s odd to me because escapism always feels like there’s not a connection to reality or to responsibility. I mean, this whole travel thing—just having friends who are able to drop everything and go to these places like Nepal and Tibet and spend a year there without the physical responsibilities of race, sexuality, and life—that very much feels like escapism, of being able to just disconnect from our physical reality. That feels less real than the hyper-futuristic surreal images I create.

I’m wondering, what is the actual term for what I’m doing? It’s very much a response to the actual physical world. I can’t escape my identity, but I can step outside of myself and look at my identity as this artificial construct. Because it is an artificial construct that has been placed on me, it is not who I am. It is not the reality of my lived experience. It is a mythology that is continuously being reconstructed along the entire spectrum of our culture. It is a constantly building myth that we try to escape or that we try to translate, that is continuously being retold in a detrimental fashion.

Maybe my stuff is sort of a counter-mythology. I like that: “counter-mythology.”

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