By Olivia Belande,
Have you ever spent a most perfect Saturday afternoon perusing through an art gallery, taking meaningful looks at the works displayed and falling in love with the artistry? It has recently become trendy to seek out portraits within galleries that look like ourselves or others we know, and upload the uncanny side by side online for the internet to marvel over. That painting of a sour looking Victorian woman in a bonnet sort of looks like your high school English teacher! The portrait of a French monarch looks a whole lot like your first boss out of college. Though, does anyone look like… you?
Depending on who you are and where you came from, your answer to the question may vary wildly from someone else’s. Chancing the idea that perhaps the reader is white means that there is a much higher prospect that they have found themselves represented in some (or several) ways when exploring all the preciously preserved and restored artworks mainstream galleries have to offer. Chancing that the reader is not white means that perhaps they find themselves struggling to see fair representations of their likeness through art.
Enter Gordon Shadrach. Born in the city of Brampton, Ontario (a short drive from Toronto, the city in which he now resides), Gordon Shadrach aims to bring ultra important representation to the black community via his compelling artworks. His work has been featured throughout both the U.S. and Canada, and his works are currently available for purchase through his website (both prints and originals). With a background that originally lies in textiles, Gordon’s fascination with fashion, its history, and the intersection of its history with the black community and representation through art, he is able to create portraits that mystify the uninitiated and arouse feelings of deep reflection within the viewer.
Shadrach began his journey of exploration through painting in 2013, beginning to experiment with oils and acrylics. Observing his earlier works, we can see many a painting of a pair of shoes– dress shoes, sneakers, a loafer perhaps. Without including the subject above their legs, the viewer is able to come to their own conclusion about who may be wearing the shoes. What do they do? Where are they? Later, however, Shadrach changes the composition of his subjects, and takes the guesswork out of the who we may be observing.
Shadrach, Gordon. Revered. 2020, Toronto.
In his painting “Revered” (a personal favourite of mine), Gordon Shadrach depicts the image of a black man in a basketball jersey with “Black / 75 / Loyalist” stitched across the front. A crisp, white collar emanates from the neck band of the jersey and on the man’s shoulders one perfectly tailored 18th century Loyalist coat. The subject stands tall, looking down to the viewer in a stance that feels powerful, refined and present. Why is this so important?
If one is not used to Shadrach’s work, they may have been startled by the sitters and the seriousness of their characters as depicted on canvas. But why is that? Why do these paintings stir such strong emotions within the viewer? Could it be perhaps we, as humans, are programmed to elicit a deep discomfort in response to the unfamiliar? Let’s examine this.
Shadrach, Gordon. Opulence. 2021, Toronto.
Shadrach’s works present black folk in a way that has rarely been presented to the mainstream before, and has begun to bridge the gap between black portraiture and mainstream art observance. He often takes the black man and paints him into a seat he may have never been in before, giving his subject classic 18th century hairstyles and clothing that were often only reserved for the white, upper class. Portraiture of black folk during such a time rarely shed them in such a regal light. In the off chance that a black man was fortunate enough to have his portrait painted, there often came speculation in the centuries after over whether or not the clothes he wore were really his own, if he really was of such a high status or had enough to commission the portrait himself. Because of this, our ability to see black folk represented positively in classic works of art has often been tainted by the prejudices that stem from the artwork’s origins, and makes the procurement of these pieces for public viewing very difficult.
Shadrach, Gordon. The Gloves Are Off. 2020, Toronto.
In his sculptural works, Gordon Shadrach still makes a deep impact on the viewer by combining seemingly mundane items with historical pieces that are able to awaken curiosity. In his sculpture “The Gloves Are Off” a pair of boxing gloves hangs innocently from an antique rake head. The gloves, however, are made of vintage feed and burlap sacks, and the gloves are hard, unpleasant to the touch. Shadrach explains in his interview for his solo show Net Worth + that this piece aims to connect the idea of athleticism to slavery and forced work upon black folk.
Shadrach, Gordon. RePurposed 5. 2020, Toronto.
Continuing to observe his works as they are connected to athleticism, during the height of both the Coronavirus pandemic and the sweeping protests for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Shadrach created a set of paintings depicting various black athletes wearing masks that coordinated with the sport they played. A footballer in a mask made to resemble the likeness of a football, a basketball player wearing a mask made from a basketball. This, Gordon explains in the same interview, is meant to remind viewers that even today, remnants of slave culture still exist through sport, and athletes, though autonomous beings, are still in a way owned by their teams and investors. These players are commodified for their bodies, traded and used for the labour of play. The masks represent their inability to speak openly and freely while contracted and owned by others.
Through his works, Gordon Shadrach is able to bring ultra representation to a space where it has been lacking. What’s more, he has inched the door open a little further to allow for more conversation on the commodification of blackness, and the way that the slinking hands of anti-black practices still exist in places that have rarely been examined before. He is a shining light in an industry classically shrouded in terror, and a beacon of hope for black folk in art.
To see more of Gordon Shadrach’s works, and to have a look at his available prints and artworks, please visit his website here.