Telling stories of black life saved him

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ROXBURY, Connecticut – Ron Norsworthy, visual artist and designer, could easily fit into the popular culture hero ideal: he is a man of relentless inventiveness. He studied architecture at Princeton, worked for a year as a designer with Michael Graves and, upon graduation, turned into an artistic director and production designer for widely recognized hip-hop groups in the 1990s (including Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and Salt-N-Pepa).

While at the beginning the work of art direction was exciting, Norsworthy said: “I realized in the late 90s that the world of hip-hop music videos was one. [where] I found myself marginalized.

In the early 2000s he started his own multidisciplinary design firm, the Norsworthy Fund, and in 2011, with his own brand NHOME, became one of the first African-American men to sell his own line on QVC. Over the past two decades, he has recognized himself, fundamentally, as an artist.

Through his exploration, Norsworthy told me in an interview at his home, that he has come to understand that what he primarily seeks with his work is “the creation of places that are centered on identity.” In essence, he creates works of art and installations in which the disparate parts of his identity coexist harmoniously. It’s crucial for Norsworthy that everyone is welcome, not just the apparent and supposed parts – being a black male and gay – but also the parts that are submissive and elusive.

In 2004, he almost succeeded.

Borrowing language and props from the familiar discipline of architecture, he constructed a performance and installation piece titled “Reparation Tower, Harlem” which was selected for the architectural exhibition “Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor “at the Studio. Museum.

More recently, Norsworthy simultaneously held two solo exhibitions of his work at Long Gallery Harlem and Project for Empty Space in Newark, NJ. decorative vases that floated in decorative backgrounds. The vases were meant to be representative of him – someone who often felt objectified.

“I could tell you all the ways I have been treated as an object,” Norsworthy said, adding that it was easy “to see me as this trophy, a vessel that has the potential to be the bearer of something. thing”.

“I remember being called ‘brother from another planet’ all the time, people laughed at the [professional looking] clothes I wore on set. These two exhibitions of his work, he says, were the first time he could explore his “lived experiences of marginalization.”

It wasn’t until he stopped reinventing himself to adapt to changing professional contexts that he started making art that helped him make sense of who he is, for him- same.

In a corner of “Interior Dialogue,” Norsworthy installed a seating set with wallpaper that repeats the word “Blackity” and a display case with ceramic bowls and potted candles. The bowls represent archetypes that are popularized in the black vernacular (a paper document provides the translation key). Terms include candle, wild, ratchet (or miserable), shady, ripped, rushed, thirsty, and extra – all of the ways he responded to the exclusion and tacit rejection he often felt growing up, which hurry him, and to compensate he became additional.

This effort began at a young age. Born to ascending parents in South Bend, Indiana, the eldest of three children, Norsworthy learned to adapt to ever-changing environments as his father rose through the ranks of the John Deere company in the early years. 1970. His mother, Sonja, and his younger siblings, Ryan and Courtney, moved based on where the business needed Ronald Sr. to go. By the time Norsworthy was in sixth grade, he had attended five elementary schools and said he hadn’t had the time or space to bond with people outside his family. When he was 13, they moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where everyone as far as the eye could see was white. Researching the 1980 census, he later learned that his family was the only documented black family in the entire county. “I found myself outnumbered, surrounded by whiteness so I just felt different,” he said. “There was this internalized shame about my homosexuality.” One response to shame was to become a perfectionist and “over-perform at everything.”

This tireless work earned him an undergraduate place at Princeton University. But the problems of recognition and acceptance did not go away. “It wasn’t just my homosexuality or my race, but now my class, my educational background, and where my family spent the summer, and who my people were.”

He describes to me a scene repeated in the college cafeteria where he stood with his tray of food, being watched and called by both a table of black classmates and a table with white students to join them. He feels like he always made the wrong choice, perhaps because there was no table at the time that could accommodate his intersectional identities, which he felt tolerated, not celebrated. As Norsworthy puts it, “If I wasn’t dealing with white anti-blackness, I was dealing with black homophobia. “

The artist took up a version of his ordeal in his installation “Reparation Tower, Harlem”, which consisted of a mock sales office for a fictional luxury tower in Harlem. The office had two entrances, one marked “White only” and the other “Colored entrance”, and the one chosen by the participant was visible to other visitors via video monitors. The implied suggestion here is that although visitors can make their own choices, they will be judged for them. The experience of being watched and socially classified mirrored the hypervisibility Norsworthy felt throughout his multiple occupations. As for how the culture views him and his racial identity, he portrayed the colorful entrance as leading to a plexiglass cage.

To further explore the marginalization of his race, Norsworthy began in 2016 to collaborate with his partner David Anthone, with whom he lives in Roxbury, Connecticut. Under the name DARNstudio, they produce a continuous series of large pieces which he calls “quilts”. which consist of bespoke souvenir matchbooks – each a small cardboard memorial – tied together with thread and configured in patterns that produce a large text.

Their piece “CAKEwalk, from Another Country Quilt Cycle” (2020) is part of the exhibition “Trying to Make Sense of It: 9/11, Loss, and Memorial Quilts”, presented until October 16 in Lincoln, Neb. , at the International Quilting Museum. CAKEwalk, as the museum describes, “derives its name from competitions in which enslaved blacks performed exaggerated dances caricaturing the gestures, dances and social customs of white plantation owners.” The work refers to Norsworthy’s feeling of being constantly invited to play – to play black, or homosexuality, or masculinity, or belonging to the bourgeoisie. Today, the couple said, the quilts “allow them to remember and commemorate real lives that have been lost” precisely because they could not, or did not want to, perform in a manner deemed acceptable.

The matchbooks feature logos depicting the city or a specific location where a black person was killed by law enforcement officers, while the back shows the victim’s initials and date of death. The resulting tangles work on several levels at once: a visually colorful and appealing mosaic, a formally innovative version of the quilt, and a sort of whispered warning that the act of remembering those lost lives is a fire. accumulated that could easily start a engulfing fire.

For the 2021 exhibition at Project for Empty Space, entitled “Tell a lie about me. I’m going to tell the truth about you, ”Norsworthy said, having allowed himself to contemplate larger possibilities for the history of contemporary black life. Using images of blacks taken from paintings, films and famous architectural sites, the artist digitally recontextualized the characters, inventing a new narrative for them. He generated inkjet prints of these manipulated images and constructed three-dimensional reliefs that he framed and hung. The play “Stepford (allegory n ° 4)” with an image of two women dancing together, exultingly manifests its ambition to create a place to celebrate the presence of blacks, taking into account the full range of gender identity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. .

At 55, Norsworthy is producing works of art that could have saved the young man standing in the cafeteria holding this tray, both frightened and staunchly resigned to his plight. He made his own dining arrangement, offering a nourishing feast. “Here,” he said, motioning to a place next to him, “you can sit with me. I reserve this space for you.


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