For his first solo gallery exhibition, artist Cha'ves Jamall, in study with Chuck's Brothel, presents Queen Black America, a multidisciplinary work and an autobiographical installation. The piece frames the artist as the protagonist as he becomes aware of an alter ego he has depended on for social survival for all of his adult life: a more able, imagined version of himself. A peppy, happy, everyone-loves-him, cheery Queer Black Boy from the Midwest. It’s the story of the Artist-the-Person becoming closer to the Artist-the-Character as the former avoids imploding on his own sense of self, navigating what is “authentically” him and what has been fabricated for his social mobility and success. “Where is the line?” he asks. The piece explores themes of mental health, social and civil unrest, relationships, art and consumption as they relate to this creator-created dichotomy. Cha’ves creates an arena space for the Artist-the-Person and the Artist-the-Character to see eye to eye in an emotional face off. And on this quest toward self-knowledge, the artist shares his experiences with depression, anxiety, self-formation, self-identity, and the desperate human urge to hear and see oneself as valid.
Queen Black America is an installation across many mediums, employing photography, digital art, video, sculptural pieces, poetry and music. The piece creates a dream state fantasy world that transports the audience inside the artist’s belly to feel, alongside him, the struggle to create and overcome. The study began with photography as Cha’ves struggled with depression in his Harlem apartment. He imagined spinning around in a field, trying to do whatever he could to get a glimpse of himself.
The photography led to a connection and study with Mexican artist Chuck’s Brothel. Through a collaborative conversation, Cha’ves reached out to Chuck’s and had him further the vision of animating and sensationalizing the images. The bright and colorful interpretations that emerged highlighted the parallels between the artists’ independent experiences with sadness and pain. Cha’ves aims to place these emotions in the spotlight that he feels is far too often taken by the more easily-consumed emotions of happiness and joy.
As the exhibit continues playing with media, the protagonist engages with sculpture and video. Cha’ves’ crude and organic approach to these mediums further symbolizes his characters’ first steps to contributing honestly. The sculptures -- oversized dreamy sad faces made of recycled paper, paper clay, cotton, and joint compound -- examine the process of creating something and physically working it. Making the compounds and the materials before sculpting the pieces is all a part of the larger conversation around production and creativity. The cotton pieces are meant to evoke fluffiness and reinforce the atmosphere of a dream state while asking the viewer to focus on the interaction between light and cotton. Cotton is also symbolic of America’s record of separating and repressing black families. Its strong ties to consumption and black mental health are emblematic of the larger themes of the show.
The study attempts to further immerse the audience in this universe through music and poetry. The performance is an acknowledgement of the poetry that Cha’ves wrote during that time of struggle; fragments of his creativity dramatized and harmonized under a microscope. Through this element of performance, and the lense of pop culture, Queen Black America continues exploring consumption as a system that feeds individuals to stay happy, be silent, and not question. This consumption is a desecrator of black mental health and reinforces the notion in the lyrics of Cha’ves’ song “Black Boy Soldier (Hood Rich)”:
“Black boy soldier, strong as a boulder, they’re just tryna hold you, tryna keep you hood rich. So you keep talking shit, spend that quap (money) on new kicks. It’s ruthless. It’s so sweet we’re toothless”
Queen Black America invites audiences to consider Cha’ves’ nuanced experiences with blackness, mental health, consumption, and social survival as we go about the world working to learn to care better for each other. The piece adds to the growing body of work by queer black artists contributing to the larger conversation around black people in America seeking mental health, around queer expression, around self worth and around the commodification of self-expression. Through a heightened presentation of a fantasy dream state that links these themes, Queen Black America focuses on one central truth: we must see ourselves so we can truly see each other.