With graphite drawings of family and friends, and radiant orchid garlands in acrylic paint, the artist draws us into her version of paradise.
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For Oasa DuVerney’s first solo exhibition at Welancora Gallery in Brooklyn, “A World to Live In,” she makes her graphite drawings serve as both admonition and promise. The 43-year-old artist, who was born in Queens to Trinidadian parents, has been a relentless advocate for the cause of valuing and protecting the lives of Black people. As she explains on the gallery’s website, “The figures in these works are rendered with the care, compassion and understanding that the Black body deserves but isn’t always afforded.”
The term she uses, “Black body,” pulls me back into a debate I’ve been having with curators and writers about whether this trope is appropriate and performs the work we imagine it should. Despite its pervasive usage, it strikes me as dehumanizing when discussing experiences that impact Black people, whole human beings. Yet what DuVerney does with the works on display — nine large-scale graphite drawings which are sometimes garnished with colorful acrylic paint — is fully humanize her subjects. And by using her own children, their friends and her neighbors as models, in urban and domestic settings, she puts her own skin in the game.
Her son, Stokely DuVerney Beavers, is depicted in “A Growing Veil” (all works are from 2022) behind a chain-link fence that is extravagantly embellished with a variety of orchids — helleborine, coral root, dragons mouth, lady slipper and snakemouth — all flamboyantly colored in tones of fuchsia, canary yellow, cardinal red, and deep magenta. Against her rendition of the fence, and her son’s face in monochromatic graphite, the work suggests how the sometimes hostile world sees this young Black man (in starkly black-and-white terms), compared with how she sees him: surrounded and buoyed by color that is alive and growing. Throughout the show she keeps her promise.
There are two portraits of her daughter. In the first, titled “Black Power Wave: Nightwatch,” Nzinga DuVerney is shown seemingly asleep, her long braids flung across her pillows, her body plunged into her bedding. Rising from the bottom of the composition, muscularly curling toward her torso, is a dark, graphite, mildly reflective wave form. The artist began creating what she calls her “Black Power Waves” in 2016, and they have become a signature of her work. The wave, which is saturated with graphite and cut and shaped in such a way as to suggest the irregular surface of choppy water, looks severe, and might read as threatening. However, in the second portrait, “Black Power Wave: Weaving Helleborine,” the daughter faces her twinned image as she weaves orchids into her own hair. The waveform appears as a kind of decorative trellis supporting both figures.
DuVerney has exhibited the Black power waves previously at National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C., at BRIC in Brooklyn, and currently at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Vermont. The waves operate on several levels, including as a visual metaphor for community-based, collective Black political and social power, conceived as a force of nature. But aesthetically the waves are more protean. In the medium-size graphite drawing “Join What, Die For Who?,” the wave has morphed into a set of fragmented rattlesnakes, the kind of image that would appear as the heraldic emblem of a warrior band. In “Madonna With Child,” the wave protectively encircles the figures of a casually dressed Black woman holding a sleeping baby, acting as a kind of decorative border or a baroque frame.
For DuVerney, a world remade by this irresistible, elemental force is where she wants to be. She means to make this wave sweep every viewer up onto the shores of her paradise: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where her people dwell.
Oasa DuVerney: A World To Live In
Through Aug. 6, Welancora Gallery, 33 Herkimer Street, Brooklyn, 917-848-4627; welancoragallery.com