A Smile or a Snarl? Pain, Pleasure and Perspective in Arvie Smith’s Oeuvre
By Heather Nickels
Shining white teeth. Large red lips. Bright, wild eyes. Grinning, wide mouths. Or… are they grimacing?
. . .
Before speaking with Arvie Smith on the phone for the first time several weeks ago, I was already familiar with the artist, having encountered his work on several occasions prior. Most recently was in May of this year in the exhibition, The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined, at the European Cultural Center (ECC), in Venice, Italy, which overlapped with the most recent edition of the Venice Biennale entitled, The Milk of Dreams.
Despite it being our first encounter with one another, I felt an acute and immediate sense of familiarity with Smith. Perhaps it’s in part due to the fact the artist is around the same age as my maternal great-uncle, who was also born and raised in the American South, only in North Carolina instead of Texas. In recollecting on my time speaking with the two, I recognized both had experienced eerily similar and innumerable instances of bigotry during the height of Jim Crow segregation; at one point during our conversation, Smith remembered that at a very young age, members of the local Ku Klux Klan (KKK) burned down his neighbor’s farm (which also happened to belong to his grandfather’s brother). In the aftermath of this traumatic experience, he recalled building small sculptures out of the farm’s ashes and remnants, and which he stated, in retrospect, was him “playing in the rubble of hate.”
This image of a young Black child creating structures out of found materials – of that which was meant to be obliterated – stuck with me. I heard that story and thought of no better metaphor to encapsulate his art and practice. Making something out of nothing, despite the adversity faced – this is a common refrain for many artists, particularly those of color. However, I could not help but think that since that time, he has returned, again and again, to constructing art as an act of perhaps equal parts desperation and defiance. As a child, of course, he had no greater understanding of this particular incident on the farm, nor how it reflected a large system that positioned him, and those like him, at the bottom. He would quickly come to learn all of this-- from being told “[w]e don’t need your kind here” when trying to enroll in one art program, to the animosity he experienced while studying in Italy (notably from the white American students, as opposed to the Italian ones), Smith has fought numerous personal and professional battles. Taking the many experiences he has encountered as a Black man in the United States and beyond, Smith incorporates these “persistent denigrations” into his art, blurring the lines between the tragic and the satirical, the stereotypical and the appropriative, the damaging and the transformative.
One aspect of his work that I believe perfectly encapsulates this tension – and which I return to frequently – is the “grin” of his subjects. This particular facial expression recurs as a common theme throughout Smith’s long multi-decade career, and can be seen in presently-exhibited works such as Honky Tonk (2015), Watermelons, White Women, and Straight Razors (2022) and Echo and Narcissus (2022). Some of his Black figures (such as the “mammy” nursing a white baby in Honky Tonk, the waiter holding the turkey on a platter in Watermelons…, and the reflection of “Sambo” in the pool of water in Echo and Narcissus, to name a few) look directly out at us, as if to meet our gaze, while others seem unable – or unwilling – to reach our own.
Is there something funny that we, as viewers, are missing? Or is what we are witnessing a strange product of the continual accumulation of trauma?
In “Embedded Truths: Five Paintings by Arvie Smith,” scholar Berrisford Boothe describes the “Sambo” figure in Smith’s painting, Bojangles Ascending the Stairs, stating: “his [Sambo’s] grin is not a smile. His teeth, chomping on his cigar and enclosed by his inflated, cartoonish lips, represent the projected predatory menace of Black men – projected onto them by ‘white’ men.” Thus, one’s understanding of this gesture – a grin/grimace – revolves around the positionality of the person making the meaning. To white audiences unaware of the historic implications, a “smiling” Aunt Jemima, set of Gold Dust Twins, Sambo, or minstrel performer might not be associated with anything nefarious; however, to many Black audiences, what appears as a “smile” reflects a grave reality: since the emotions of Black people are deemed societally “irrelevant,” Black people often feel compelled to mask their feelings of discontent, discomfort or outright anger behind what could be perceived as a “smile.”
Clearly attuned to this tension between (white) perception and (Black) reality, Smith frequently uses images of “smiling” Black people in his work, often through the appropriation of well-known stereotypical icons. Which makes one wonder… is it possible to take images of hate (or perhaps the burnt ashes of one’s home?) and create something if not beautiful, then at least meaningful? Smith seems to think so: he finds it important to think about – and then depict – how Black people are seen by white people in his work, as if to ask viewers directly how they might come to these assumptions. He then takes those projections, mixes them with various historic imagery or, more recently, Greek myths (as seen in Leda and the Swan, Bacchus and Echo and Narcissus, all from 2022), which eventually (d)evolve into these almost nightmarish reveries.
Smith’s jarring color palette – inspired by his ancestor’s vibrant quilts and the brightly-colored patterns he sees on his recurring visits to West Africa – and the subject matter of his paintings have remained consistent, from the earliest work in the show, Manumission (2006) to the works produced earlier this year. A troubling series of events, particularly when it comes to the treatment of Black people, American history can often feel like a series of nightmares, one after another– multiple affronts that appear unceasing. Arvie Smith, unafraid of shining a light on these cauchemars himself, forces his audience not to look away either. The decision to give into either (both?) the pain and pleasure we witness, therefore, is ours to choose.
Heather Nickels is an independent curator, art historian, writer and Ph.D candidate in the Department of Art History & Archaeology at Columbia University in New York City, and is based in New York City.
1 Arvie Smith, in an interview over Zoom with the artist on Sep 18, 2022.2 Smith et al. Arvie Smith: 2Up and 2Back, p. 17.3 Artist personal statement for Arvie Smith : 2Up and 2Back II, at Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, https://www.pdx.edu/museum-of-art/arvie-smith-2-and-2-back-ii. 4 Historically, the term “Sambo” was used pejoratively to describe a Black person, and can be seen in literature and popular American culture as early as the nineteenth-century. Now, this term is largely associated with a character in the 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”5 Berrisford Boothe, “Embedded Truths: Five Paintings by Arvie Smith, ”Arvie Smith: 2Up and 2Bac"k, p. 10.