The oil paintings of Detroit-based figurative artist Tylonn Sawyer are mounted with layered messaging and symbolism.
In his latest work ”White History Month, Vol. 1,” on display at the Institute for the Humanities gallery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, his work draws from U.S. history as well as the history of Western arts.
He deals with niche spaces where people of color didn’t have input regarding the way history was presented.
““A simple way to look at it is [the piece being] about the anxiety of being black in America and constantly being reminded of blackness within this racist environment.” - Tylonn Sawyer, artist
“Being black, I’m going back into those histories – the renaissance, antebellum South – and seeing places where people of color were involved and starting to make corrections,” he tells CultureShift’s Ryan Patrick Hooper. “Or creating pieces of work that might be sort of like visual poetry, to see how something that was being created then, really affects what’s happening to us, today.”
A centerpiece from the installation is the mural “White on White Stone Mountain.” Outside of being one of the largest paintings Sawyer has created, he notes that its arguably the “most complex piece of art that I’ve ever done,” says Sawyer.
In the 14 x 6 foot oil painting, Sawyer presents this sense of anxiety and discomfort in the textured piece.
His thought process revisited 2017 when there was a big push to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces. Amid its controversial and racist symbolism, Sawyer views it as an artistic achievement – that, however, is followed by a deeper narrative.
“I think regardless of it representing American’s racist past or projecting aspects of the present, it’s still, I think, one of the most beautiful pieces of public art I’ve ever seen. It’s an amazing sculpture. But, simultaneously, it’s also a symbol of how hard people fought to maintain a system that oppressed people that look like me.”
Sawyer adds, “A simple way to look at it is [the piece being] about the anxiety of being black in America and constantly being reminded of blackness or having to exist within this sort of racist environment.”
The mural displays seven men dressed in white suits scrunched over in bed. The position of their bodies allude to them tossing and turning, unable to reach comfort.
“Oftentimes, that’s what it feels like to be black in this country,” Sawyer says. “There are tons of people whom I know that live in Georgia, who go jogging up that mountain and I wonder how often they are thinking about that. They are conquering this Confederate monument or this racist statue everyday.”
Click the player above to hear Tylonn Sawyer discuss “White History Month, Vol. 1” with CultureShift’s Ryan Patrick Hooper.
“White History Month, Vol. 1” is now on display at the Institute for the Humanities gallery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It will be there through December 19th.
Words by LaToya Cross
Audio interview by Ryan Patrick Hooper