Interview with Black Maths Artist Antonio McAfee

Antonio McAfee || Baltimore-based visual artist || Black Maths October 31–December 10, 2016 at the Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Grace DeWitt

This is the second installment of the Black Maths artist interview series.

To start with some background, did you grow up in the Baltimore area, where you’re currently based?

I moved to Baltimore when I was 9. My father was in the army so my brother and I were born in Germany; prior to moving to Baltimore, I lived in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Where did you study, and were you gravitated toward art early on, or did you have to find your way to art-making?

As a kid, I gravitated to understanding how things worked and story-telling. I started out taking apart toys and other devices (trucks, Nintendos, stereos, etc.) just to exercise my curiosity of how things worked. I also wrote stories which was something I would get absorbed in. Drawing was another activity I did quite a bit for many years, but I was mostly captivated by technology and telling stories, which plays a crucial role in how I think and work in the study. As evident in Black Maths, deconstruction and narratives really drive my current body of work, and has since college.

Art-making came into my life in high school. I went to Carver Center for Arts and Technology which is a magnet high school that allowed students to major in primes. Officially, I was in the Culinary Arts program but during my second year I saw the work of two visual art students (Justin Blische and Johnny Rogers) who were doing experimental photography, and it completely fascinated me, in part, because I have not seen much like it at the time. I wanted to learn how they made their images, so I approached the photography teacher (Charles Schwartz) about taking a class and I have been obsessed ever since. Junior year I participated in the school’s Italian Exchange Program; during this trip I went to the Venice Biennale and it blew me away. Going to galleries and museums was not a big part of my life; seeing ideas presented on a grand scale was the turning point, and I decided to dedicate my life to art.

Right after high school, I studied at Morgan State University for a year, then transferred to the Corcoran College of Art and Design to be as immersed as possible in art. Right after that I attended the University of Pennsylvania to get my MFA in photography. While at the Corcoran I worked at numerous art institutions and learned a great deal about facilitating exhibitions, collections, and programs. This experience influenced me to study Art and Culture Management at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Your work in Black Maths, the Counter-Archive Project, transforms black-and-white photographs made for the The Exhibition of American Negroes organized by W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Calloway, and Historic Black Colleges at the Paris 1900 International Exposition. How did you come across The Exhibition of American Negroes?

In graduate school, I was on a trip to San Francisco, while there I visited my aunt who was studying at UC Santa Cruz. She gave me a chapter from the book Photography on the Color Line in which the author dedicates a chapter to analyzing the photography of The Exhibition of American Negroes. This text was eye opening because it introduced Du Bois’ involvement with photography, and thinking about archives as something I contribute to, as opposed to something that is static and set in stone.

Can you explain how you encountered the ideas of Lucy Lippard, and how your work in Black Maths resonates with Lippard’s thoughts on intersubjective time?

Lucy Lippard initially came to me in an art theory class while I was a student at the Corcoran. As a feminist theorist, she offered a critical point of view that was new and exciting to me in that context, enabling me to think much broader about representation. Ms. Lippard presented the idea of intersubjective time in her essay Doubletake: The Diary of a Relationship of an Image, in which she discusses different levels of personal attachment to a black and white photograph of a Native American family. Through stages of research into the photographer and the family Lippard developed a deepened affection for the photograph. An affection that transcended time and evolved the more she researched.


Antonio McAfee, The Trickster (In Motion), 2014, digital C-print

This mimics the engagement I have with the portraits from the American Negro Exhibition. Researching and understanding the back stories contributes to knowing the whys and whats of the portraits, which allows for personal points of entry I can relate to. Using photography to address misrepresentation and realigning it towards accurate representations struck a chord with me because being subjected to others’ expectations, assumptions, stereotypes, etc. is an on-going battle. Images are a profound way in which people understand each other, so it is pertinent for me to use that medium to counter those notions and take depictions of others to a different direction that a) deconstruct and reconstruct photographic portraiture and b) offer depictions that are influx, inexplicable, and play with static representations. It is through experimenting and remaking these images that I develop a deepening connection to these pictures, their time period, and the narrative behind their inception.

You mentioned at the Black Maths opener that a certain book also played a large role in inspiring the Counter-Archive Project. Could you go into further detail about that?

Photography on the Color Line by Shane Smith is an influential book in which the title of the project comes from. Dr. Smith outlines the context that contributed to the creation of this project by Mr. Colloway and Du Bois. To combat racist ideas and depictions of Blacks, The Exhibition of American Negroes was created to survey their middle class status from a lower social and economic status (slavery, sharecropper, etc.), using photographic portraiture as a counter move to reposition one’s self and others, to establish control of how someone or a group of people are to be seen, understood, and engaged. I think it is powerful to have a personal stake in history, in particular, a document that is locked in a time, place, idea and to take back some authority of history and rework it in a way relates more specifically that person. This process can reveal a web of connections that may not have been noticed before, ushering new directions, ideas, and relationships.

A Small Nation of People by David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis (on display at the gallery) is also informative because it presents research conducted about the exhibition which presents more information about the people photographed and the backstory about how the exhibition came about and Du Bois and Colloway’s experience developing and exhibiting the exhibition. In general, literature plays an essential part in the ways I think about myself, others, and what I do: books from The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking the World by Elaine Scary, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Counter-Archive is photography-centered. Have your artistic endeavors always focused on photographic elements, or has this interest developed from projects in other media?

The core of my endeavors is photography. I also make pieces in video, drawing, collage, sculpture, and painting, but they revolve around photography and portraiture. My interest in other media developed from photography.

To what degree would you say that spontaneity, or an uncontrolled use of materials, play a role in your work?

Spontaneity plays a huge role in my process. Using glue as the initial method to alter pictures gives me a jumping off point I cannot completely control and allows for moves after that guide me in unexpected directions. It helps keep the images and process fresh, offering new challenges and problems to solve, but the more I use it the more I can understand.

“The Trickster” and the “Woman in Black” are recurring characters throughout the Counter-Archive Project. Was there a specific reason for repeating or revisiting these characters?


Antonio McAfee, Woman in Black Cross Fade, 2014, video

While I am working on one piece questions of “what if this or that happens” come up. So, I will make many versions of the same figure because I want to see my initial idea through, but I do not want to ignore the various stages along the way, especially if they are effective images. It is a matter of paying attention to what is in front of me and letting different stages and thoughts sit for a while to see what they offer.

Could you explain what led you to the incorporation of 3D elements into Counter-Archive?

The 3D portraits are an extension of The Trickster (In Motion) which is an image of The Trickster that has been duplicated and overlapped to give the effect as if someone is looking at him cross-eyed. I wanted to enhance that effect by creating figures that seem to
vibrate, shift left and right, and turn visible and invisible. One way to achieve this was to use a 3D visual that actually did that with the assistance of red, blue, and 3D glasses.

It appears that you explored a number of photograph manipulation techniques in your series. Could you explain your process in creating El Tarta, one of the more noticeably varied works in the collection?

El Tarta is a collage that is made of fragments from the 1900 studio portraits. I use a transfer process that takes inkjet ink from dried glue –- applied to the studio portraits -– to acrylic medium. From there I glue the medium pieces, holding the ink onto paper to build figures partially from scratch.


Antonio McAfee, El Tarta, 2016, pigment ink on paper


What about your process in creating The Abrupt Unmaking?

For The Abrupt Unmaking, I poured glue onto the inkjet print and let it rest there for three months. Over time, the print buckled and curled as a result of the hardening glue; then I peeled off the glue, leaving the wistful impression of a fading figure.

Can you tell me a little bit about your conceptual and physical processes in creating the three Unmaking and Making panel pieces in the show?

The process for creating the panels pieces is the same as El Tarta. After transferring the ink to acrylic medium I glue the pieces, building out the figures and simultaneously abstracting and camouflaging them amongst the black, white and grays tones of the photographs. These collages are a move towards more imaginative interpretations of these individuals, trying to see far I can push my interpretations. This process is closer to drawing than most of the work in the show. It has been a fruitful, challenging move away from the strictness of the historical aesthetic and image, to reconstruct the figures to numerous small pieces.

Were there any other particular experiences or connections that emerged from creating certain pieces in Counter-Archive that you’d be willing to share?

Woman in Black Cross Fade was an exciting, spontaneous development because I just happened to come across a three-eyed figure that had two heads blended together. I have been fascinated by three-eyes figures in Christian paintings for some time and always wanted to make some, but other pieces and techniques taking place in the studio superceded that goal. Once I came across the merged head with three eyes, I remembered immediately “I have wanted to create images like this;” it was an exciting surprise that felt like an accomplishment.

I understand that the exhibition title ‘Black Maths was a joint decision between you and Adam. Would you mind explaining a little bit about how the title relates specifically to your work in the show?

The title Black Maths comes from the idea of reworking traditions, offering visitors the chance to take in styles of images and sounds that may be familiar or established. Through experimentation, Adam and I have developed process-centered methods, i.e., our own equations, to produce pieces that are rooted in the past or a certain event but offers new interpretations to what they mean or how they function today.

When someone walks into Black Maths, what is one thing you hope that person will grasp about your work?

The abstract/inexplicable is valid and powerful in its own right. No one has to bear the burden of proving his or her existence or normalcy, which is quite often the plight of people that are categorized as “other” and not a part of a dominant culture. It is quite all right having others put in the effort to meet you halfway to understand who you are.

Do you feel that the message or significance of either the Counter-Archive Project, or Black Maths, has changed since its state at opening?

No, I do not think it changed. It has just been presented holistically to showcase the range in which the message can be seen in the array I have been working and conceptualizing it.

In close, can I ask what you’re currently working on?

I am working on an 8 1/2 ft tall portrait collage of D’Angelo as Mary Magdalene with life-size photographic sculpture cut-outs the 1900 portraits. This month I am participating in two group shows as  well.


McAfee’s work is included in Black Maths at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, October 31–December 10, 2016. Read more about Antonio McAfee.

McAfee will be joining Adam Holofcener in an artists talk in the Gallery on December 10, 2016 at 2 pm. Read more about Black Maths.


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